Tuol Sleng chief's admission of guilt would come amid questions of whether the perpetrators of Khmer Rouge atrocities can also be victims.
A child looks at skulls inside a stupa at the popular tourist site Phnom Sampov near Samlot in Battambang province, some 291 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh this month. The resumption of Duch's trial today may bring new light to bear on generations-old moral questions for the Kingdom.
HIM Huy, one of the only surviving guards from Tuol Sleng prison, knows that he stands in the middle of one of Cambodia's greatest moral dilemmas: Can the perpetrators of the worst Khmer Rouge atrocities also claim to be victims of the regime?
The 53-year-old's stint at the Khmer Rouge's torture centre may have helped keep the wheels of the paranoid regime well-oiled, but Him Huy now says he was a prisoner of ideology and a slave to the orders of his higher-ups.
"I am also a victim of the Khmer Rouge. If I did not respect and practice Angkar's orders, I would have been executed like the other prisoners," he says.
This emotional moral quandary will begin to be publicly debated today, when the trial of Him Huy's former boss, prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, resumes and both victims and perpetrators take the stand to testify about the regime's most notorious detention centre.
"Right now, there isn't anything that exists that pulls the entire story together," says Alex Hinton, author of Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide.
"By the end of this, we will have a much more complete picture of how S-21 ran, with links all the way up to the central committee," he adds.
Although the trial opened formally last month, Monday marks the beginning of the substantive hearings, in which survivors, prison guards and family members of the more than 12,000 men, women and children who were tortured at Tuol Sleng and sent to their deaths will be called upon to tell their stories.
A born-again Christian and former maths teacher, Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name Duch, has been described as both a meticulous, calculated killer, and a passive, subservient actor who slavishly passed on orders from the top.
Of the five former leaders detained at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, he is the only one to admit his role in killings that occurred during the 1975-79 regime - a confession that is likely to be repeated at his trial.
"The things that will emerge most clearly are how the entire S-21 apparatus worked, going all the way from arresting people to taking them to Choeung Ek or the grounds just outside S-21 and killing them," Hinton said.
But in every trial dealing with war crimes, Hinton said, the biggest ethical question is: how do you distinguish between good and evil in an ideology so extreme that it was kill or be killed?
COURTESY OF DC-CAM
Duch (back row, second from right) photographed with other S-21 guards at Tuol Sleng during the regime.
"My brother had no power to decide who was killed. What he did was on the order of senior leaders," said Hong Kim Hong, Duch's sister who now works at Samlot district's health centre, told the Post last week.
"Ieng Thirith told the court it was Nuon Chea who ordered Duch to do it," she said, referring to an unprompted outburst by the former social affairs minister for the regime during her pretrial hearing.
"So it means that my brother is not guilty because he just did what the senior leaders told him to," she said.
Duch cannot plead guilty, as in civil law jurisdictions there is generally no such legal concept. In the court's hybrid system, a confession by the defendant will be treated like any other piece of evidence, and a full confession - which Duch is widely expected to give - does not prevent a full trial from occurring or relieve the plaintiff from its duty of presenting a case to the trial chambers.
For many who knew Duch when he found God, such as San Thy Matathe, a pastor who witnessed Duch's mid-1990s baptism in a western Cambodia river, the 66-year-old's decision to cooperate with the court was motivated by his new religion.
"If he had not believed in God, he would not have confessed his crimes," San Thy Matathe told AFP last week.
Although Him Huy has not found God like his former boss, he, too, says that telling the court in detail the ways in which he carried out orders to brutalise will give him closure.
"When I know clearly why there was an order to torture and to kill people, my conscience will be cleared," he said. "History pages will be closed by the ECCC. We will know who gave the orders and who was behind these massacres."
Fears of confessing
Him Huy is a public face on the thousands of cadres who made up an intricate hierarchy of regime officials, some defiant and others regretful about their roles as small pieces of the regime's machinery.
"[Testimonies at the court are] a very important step for the healing of a nation because reconciliation is not only about the victims or the winners of war, but the perpetrators and former enemies as well," says genocide researcher Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
But with the first trial at the court finally starting, many former perpetrators are afraid to come forward, even as witnesses, for fear of being imprisoned.
"My wife and I can't sleep well since court was formed. We are worried about security and we always think any day the court will summon me," says one former cadre who now lives under an assumed name.
Another high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre, who was in charge of the northwest zone after the previous chief, Ros Nhim, was arrested in 1978, agreed.
IF MORE KHMER ROUGE ... ARE ACCUSED AND DETAINED, THERE WILL BE PROBLEMS.
"I am living in a quiet place, away from my village since the court was formed. I am worried the court will arrest me," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is not only me, my former comrades who were senior officials are also hiding and trying to hide their background since the court was set up," he added.
A former cadre who wanted to be referred to only as Roeun, also questioned the value of the trials.
"Why is Duch being tried if he was a very low-ranking Khmer Rouge member? We are afraid we'll be the next to be arrested and tried because we are higher [ranking] than him," he said.
Expand the trials?
For many overseas observers, the trial must broaden its net regardless of the fears for national reconciliation and stability.
"Many more [former leaders] need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes," Amnesty International said Saturday in a statement, quoting Brittis Edman, Amnesty's Cambodia researcher.
Robert Petit, the court's foreign co-prosecutor, has said that he wants more former regime members investigated. However, his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, disagrees on the basis of national security. The impasse has been made formal and sent to the pretrial chamber for a decision.
Many ex-Khmer Rouge agree with Chea Leang.
Meas Muth, a former military commander and widely considered to be on Petit's second list of suspects, said indicting more people would spark unrest.
"If more Khmer Rouge cadres are accused and detained, there will be problems and disorder in the former Khmer Rouge areas," Meas Muth said.
Regardless of whether more cadre are rounded up, for Youk Chhang the first trial is a huge step towards understanding - for everyone.
"There may be no single answer to what really happened. However, we all have the obligation to participate in the search for truth," he says.
Francois Roux, Duch's international co-lawyer, says that Duch will uphold a promise made last month to ask forgiveness for his role in the regime.
"I would like to repeat Duch's words: ‘I will apologise to the victims, but I won't ask the victims to pardon me yet."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NETH PHEAKTRA