Cambodian Prison: A place of torture and death for innocent
For the Nevada Appeal
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – From a distance, the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School provided no outward evidence of the horrors that awaited me once inside when I arrived aboard a “tuk-tuk” taxicab, a small, two-wheeled canopied trailer pulled by a motorcycle.
Set on a narrow side street in this chaotic and poverty-stricken capital city of Cambodia, the complex of five three-story concrete buildings surrounded by a playground, palm trees, small shops and food stalls appeared commonplace and ordinary as my driver, 35-year-old Kosal, let me off at the front gate.
But first impressions can be deceiving.
The former school that once accommodated 1,000 students had been converted into the notorious Security 21 or Tuol Sleng Prison by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime when it won the Cambodian Civil War in the mid-1970s, and it soon became the nation’s largest penal center where thousands of innocent men, women and children were interrogated, beaten, tortured and killed until it was shuttered four years later.
Now a genocide museum, the prison serves as the testament to the irrationality and cruelty of the radical Khmer Rouge movement led by the infamous “Brother Number One” Pol Pot from 1975 until 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia during a border dispute between the two nations that ultimately led to the defeat and flight of the Communists, the closing of the prison and the re-establishment of comparative peace and order.
During their four-year reign, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and other cities, forcing their inhabitants to move to the countryside and work as slave laborers in an effort to create a fundamentalist, agrarian utopia in which money, machinery, automobiles, modern medicine, religion, private property, education and all semblances of modern civilization were abolished.
Government officials, Buddhist monks, teachers, professors, students, doctors, scientists and all those in the middle and upper classes were murdered outright by the Khmer Rouge or taken to Tuol Sleng Prison and other facilities where they were interrogated and forced to write false confessions that implicated family members, friends and neighbors before being tortured and put to death.
As I entered the prison, I was joined by a middle-aged German couple and two young Swedish backpackers.
“I hope all five of us can stay together in here. It is too terrible just for the two of us,” said the German woman as she clutched her husband’s arm.
I, too, needed the company of sympathetic others. What lay before me in the museum was unspeakable. I will never be able to erase from my mind what I saw.
The former classrooms had been converted into tiny brick cells where prisoners were chained to the walls and floors before being photographed and interrogated. The windows, doors and outer corridors were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes or prisoners jumping to their deaths from the upper levels.
Prisoners were ordered to stand at attention in their cells during daylight hours, and when night came they were shackled together with bars and chains, instructed not to speak with their fellow inmates and forced to sleep in their underwear jammed head-to-toe against one another on the bare floors.
Following days of interrogation, the prisoners were led to windowless chambers where they underwent medieval tortures too gruesome to describe, taken to a courtyard and beaten to death with shovels, pickaxes or clubs and buried on the school grounds.
When the graves could hold no more bodies, prisoners were bound with wire, blindfolded and trucked 10 miles to the famous killing fields at Choeug Ek where they were beaten to death and thrown into mass graves.
Of the estimated 14,000 to 20,000 prisoners incarcerated at Tuol Sleng, all met death except for seven who managed to escape. More than 1.8 million Cambodians, approximately one-fourth of the nation’s population, died during the four-year Khmer Rouge terror from torture, murder, starvation, overwork or disease.
Walking the halls of the prison, I arrived in a room where photographs of the prisoners taken by their captors were displayed on large panels. Several were of women holding infants in their arms. I also came upon a case holding several of the prisoners’ skulls that were unearthed in the schoolyard.
The German woman in my small group burst into tears at this sight. “This is like Nazi Germany,” she cried, running outside.
More than 35 years after the depredations began, justice has finally commenced. The prison chief known as “Duch,” who has already served 11 years in prison, was convicted four months ago by a UN-backed tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity and will serve an additional 19 years behind bars. Trials for other Khmer Rouge officials are to begin in early 2011.
Kosal, my taxi driver, told me when I left the prison, “Duch’s sentence was too lenient. He should have been executed. Both my parents, two brothers and 20 of my aunts and uncles were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. There is no real justice here.”
Perhaps John Hall, associate professor of international law at Chapman University who has carried out extensive human rights field work and research in Cambodia, best articulates the reactions of those such as myself who have visited Tuol Sleng.
“I have been to the prison many times,” he told me, “and each time I am more shocked by its depravity and inhumanity. Tuol Sleng was a center of bestiality, barbarism and hopelessness.”
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.