Away from the clamour of his fellow prisoners, an elderly man approaches the barbed wire that keeps him locked in solitary confinement in a cell in Kandal Provincial Prison.
Dressed only in a pair of blue shorts, the man speaks gently as he addresses his visitor, one of only a few he has greeted since being ordered to serve a life sentence for war crimes.
The man is Duch – or Kaing Guek Eav – the prison chief who oversaw the deaths of more than 12,000 people at the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 torture facility and detention centre from 1975 to 1979.
“I would like to apologise [to you],” he says softly, as he welcomes his interviewer with a polite smile. “I don’t want to say much, because I have said everything already at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”
In 2009, Duch became the first Khmer Rouge figure to admit to a court his role in the atrocities that occurred under the brutal Pol Pot regime.
“I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of people there,” Duch admitted at trial, adding he felt “regret and heartfelt sorrow” for what he had done.
Since being transferred here last March to serve out a life term for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Duch, now a white-haired 71-year-old, has lived in a 28-square-metre room encompassed by razor wire.
The former prison chief and school teacher is afforded no opportunity to mix with other inmates at the prison. But to say that Duch is “languishing” in a cell – like so many others at this prison are – is not an accurate depiction of the conditions in which he is kept.
While others, dressed in standard blue-and-white convict attire, are crammed into cells with up to 40 fellow prisoners, Duch lives in a room surrounded by books, says Chat Sineang, chief of the Kandal prison facility.
Furthermore, he has a fan and a sofa in his cell and uses a “good bathroom”. Duch, Sineang adds, is fed the same as other prisoners – two meals a day – but has had a request to the provincial prosecutor granted for an electric cooker that he uses in his room.
Physically, Duch looks healthy. He is calm and smiles when in the presence of a reporter. During the brief interview that he grants, he speaks positively of his life inside.
“I live happily,” he says as he describes his surrounds. “I feel fine in here.”
A rare complaint, he says, are pains in one of his hands, something he tends to while he speaks by applying oil to his palm, wrist and forearm.
Almost four years after expressing regret in court, what remorse he still feels remains encased inside him.
Duch is given a number of hours out of his cell each day to exercise, time he has also used to cultivate a vegetable garden, Sineang says.
However, his requests to join fellow prisoners in their exercise yard have been refused.
“He has asked us if he can go out there, but we don’t allow it because we don’t trust the other detainees,” Sineang adds.
When Duch’s sentence was increased to life in prison in 2012, the view of the Supreme Court Chamber at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that the “particularly shocking and heinous character” of Duch’s crimes, over a length of time, “undoubtedly place this case among the gravest before international criminal tribunals”.
As Sineang expected, Duch’s arrival at the provincial prison in Kandal more than a year later stirred the interest of others incarcerated here.
“When he came, at first many inmates wanted to see him, because they discovered it was him and they knew his past,” Sineang says. “We had a meeting with those detainees about what he had done, and I told them that when he comes to serve his sentence, no one can use violence or take revenge on him.
“We also told Duch to take care of himself. Still, we don’t allow other inmates to converse with him directly in his room.”
While human interaction is not something Duch gets from those living around him, family members and lawyer Kar Savuth, who was part of the legal team that defended him at trial, have visited him at the Kandal facility.
Following the death of Duch’s wife, Chhim Sophal, in a robbery in 1995, he converted to Christianity.
A pastor, Sineang says, has visited Duch twice at the prison, an interaction that has involved Bible discussion and worship in his room.
But to inmates in the Kandal prison – just as to countless many outside – Duch remains an enigma.
One prisoner, who asked not to be named, tells the Post that upon Duch’s arrival, inmates wondered why one prisoner was being kept away from the main group in a “better cell”. When prisoners began piecing together who this mystery prisoner was, resentment built.
“I wondered – after he had killed so many people – why he was held in a better place than us,” the prisoner says. “In reality, he should be kept in the same conditions that he subjected people to.”
After expressing these words, the prisoner pauses in thought, before adding that he understands why Duch is kept in isolation – he might, he adds, encounter serious problems with prisoners whose family members were killed at S-21.
“For my part, I don’t bear a grudge against him,” the prisoner says before leaving for his scheduled lunch. “He is old and has been jailed for his actions.”