Sunday, March 29, 2009

"...his sins are serious, and I don’t know how God can forgive him": Pastor San Thy Matathe

K Rouge chief seeks forgiveness

Sunday 29/3/2009
Gulf Times

In this remote part of Cambodia he was once known as a teacher who converted many to Christianity—now Duch is hoping for forgiveness when his trial resumes at a UN-backed Khmer Rouge court.

Duch was the brutal regime’s torturer-in-chief, allegedly overseeing the torture and extermination of more than 15,000 men, women and children at the communist movement’s Tuol Sleng prison during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 rule.

Some who know 66-year-old Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, say there is only one reason he is ready to own up to his past.

“In my opinion, if he had not believed in God he would not have confessed his crimes,” said San Thy Matathe, a pastor who witnessed Duch’s mid-1990s baptism in a western Cambodia river.

He recalls a meeting of evangelical Christians when Duch was particularly interested in the concept of forgiveness. In predominantly Buddhist Cambodia, most believe that killers are condemned to hell.

“He asked, ‘Will God forgive us even if we have committed the worst and most brutal sins?’” said San Thy Matathe.

“He was told, ‘Of course God will offer absolution, because God says he forgives.’”
Duch’s eldest daughter, Ky Sievkim, who still lives in the western town of Samlot where Duch hid out for years, says he converted many in the area to Christianity, including her.

“When he baptised me, he brought me to a pond and told me to raise my hands in prayer. He lightly touched my forehead with his palm and pushed me backwards into the water, then brought me back to my feet,” she said.

Back in the mid-1990s, Duch was living under an assumed name in western Cambodia. His wife had been murdered in an apparent robbery.

None who knew him then would say whether the promise of salvation influenced his religious conversion.

Their descriptions of Duch as a gentle teacher, however, are far different from those given by people who worked under him at the prison in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, where he was feared by nearly everyone.

At Tuol Sleng, the ever-meticulous Duch built up a huge archive of photos, confessions and other documents with which the final horrible months of thousands of inmates’ lives can be traced—and used to convict him.

Photojournalist Nic Dunlop, who uncovered Duch in 1999, wrote that he had set about spreading his new faith with the same zeal with which he had once embraced communism.

Of the five former Khmer Rouge leaders currently imprisoned by the war crimes court, Duch is the only one who admits guilt for atrocities committed by the regime which killed up to 2mn people.

The trial of former Khmer Rouge ideologue Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith, is scheduled to begin later this year.

But as Duch awaits his public confession in court, he has been preaching the word of Christ to the other detainees, says Pastor Bun San In, a church organiser in Battambang, the main city near Samlot.

“He wants all the detainees there to experience God,” says Bun San In, who took holy communion with Duch twice last year at the Khmer Rouge court jail.

“Duch reads the Bible and tries to pass it to the others and get them to believe in Christ... that’s what he told us,” the pastor adds.

In the 1990s, he was just as pious.

Local restaurant owner Sok Lan, who briefly rented a plot of land from Duch, says he planned to build a church on his property in the months before his 1999 arrest by the Cambodian government.

Bun San In, the pastor from Battambang, says Duch’s faith has not wavered during his decade behind bars.

“Among the detainees, Duch looks happier than the others and doesn’t care when he will die,” he says.

Duch’s defence team appears to hope that his confession will bring a lighter sentence, so he does not spend the rest of his life in prison.

But even if the former prison chief is set free one day, San Thy Matathe is not so sure religion will save him.

“The Bible says God will forgive all past sins. But his sins are serious, and I don’t know how God can forgive him,” the pastor says. “In the Bible, it says God will forgive all past sins. But there’s a limit.”

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