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Pol Pot’s chief torturer comes to Christ

Houseboats on Tonie Sap River in Cambodia Photo: Brian Hoffman/Flickr/Creative Commons

Houseboats on Tonie Sap River in Cambodia Photo: Brian Hoffman/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Khmer Rouge started off as a Maoist, guerilla group in the Cambodian jungles. Run by a despot named Pol Pot, they overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975 starting a four year reign of terror.

In an effort to transform Cambodia into an agrarian society, Pol Pot emptied the cities forcing people into the country where hundreds of thousands were either starved to death, slaughtered or simply worked to death.

Phnom Penh, the capital city with a current population of over 1.2 million, was turned into a ghost town in the late 70s.

The regime’s motto was “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss” and certainly they lived by it. There were mass executions of former government loyalists, intellectuals (this included people wearing glasses which indicated they could read) and non Cambodians such as Vietnamese and Chinese. Religious groups were also targeted particularly Christians and Muslims.

Though, the Khmer Rouge were finally ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979, it’s estimated the Khmer killed 1.7 million Cambodians — nearly 20% of the country’s population of 7.5 million. The British movie, The Killing Fields, won three Academy Awards for it portrayal of this horrific time in Cambodian history.

Though Pol Pot died in 1998 under mysterious circumstances, for decades many leaders of the Khmer Rouge walked free in the country. This included Leng Sary, the foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, who has lived in a mansion in Phnom Penn under police protection.  Nuon Chea — Brother #2 — second in command behind Pol Pot was considered the master mind behind the Khmer genocide and lives in northwestern Cambodia.  He was arraigned this past September to face trial in 2008.

The International community made repeated attempts to have Cambodia come to terms with this dark period in its history. Finally 30 years later, the government said it will hold trials in 2008 bringing to justice those responsible. In fact, senior Cambodian government officials would only allow the tribunal to go forward provided they would not be charged for their Khmer connections.

The chief torturer and executioner

One of those men facing trial will be Khang Khek Ieu (his revolutionary name was Duch — pronounced dook). He was leader of the Khmer Rouge’s secret police and oversaw its notorious prison camp system used to torture and execute individuals (men, women and children) considered enemies of the state.

Before his rise to power, Duch commanded S-21 — also known as Tuol Seng — the highest security prison in the regime where an estimated 12,000 people were imprisoned and executed. Most sent there were actually members of the Khmer Rouge, as Nuon Chea regularly purged the party of dissidents real or imagined.

Using extreme measures of torture, S-21 gained confessions for all crimes charged and then executed them.

Pol Pot’s torturer comes to Christ

Christopher LaPel — a Cambodian-born pastor living in Los Angeles — regularly traveled to Cambodia to preach the Gospel and hold leadership training seminars.

In 1995, while in Chamkar Samrong a village in Battambang province, he met a withdrawn and gaunt man named Hang Pin,  54, who was encouraged to attend LaPel’s meetings at the urging of a friend.

After listening to LaPel’s sermons, Hang made a commitment to Christ and asked to be baptized. LaPel said this resulted in a remarkable transformation in Hang. He went from being withdrawn to open and laughing and concerned about how he looked. LaPel had no idea his newest disciple was the notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge secret police — Duch.

Looking back, LaPel said the only hint of Hang Pin’s dark past came from a comment he made: “Pastor Christopher,” Hang Pin said, “I’m a sinner. I don’t think my brothers and sisters can forgive me because my sins are so deep.” [3]

After his conversion, Hang Pin returned to his village and started a church. He eventually went to work for a non government agency called the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in 1997 — all the while, maintaining his connection with LaPel and preaching the Gospel.

In search of Duch

As the Holy Spirit drew Hang Pin to salvation, British photographer and Journalist Nic Dunlop was in the country reporting on Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge past.

In his article “On the trail of Pol Pot’s chief executioner,” published in Prospect Magazine, Dunlop said he was drawn to S-21, which had been turned into a museum of the genocide.

Photos taken of the thousands people incarcerated there hung on the walls. He was mesmerized by their faces filled with  desperation and terror.  During one of his visits, he saw a picture of the camp commander — Duch. He obtained a copy thinking it might prove useful in identifying Duch if he ever came across him.

In 1999, while on one of his tours, Dunlop met Hang Pin in a village near the city of Samlot in Western Cambodia. Dunlop was convinced he had found Duch.

Dunlop returned a week later with a fellow reporter, Nate Thayer, to confront Hang Pin.  Thayer asked Hang Pin if he ever worked for the Khmer Rouge. Hang Pin deflected the question stating he currently worked with ARC and was translating school text books. Thayer asked the question two more times and finally Hang Pin paused and said, “It is God’s will you are here.” [1]

“I have done very bad things in my life,” he told them. “Now is the time to bear the consequences of my actions.”

“Then I thought God was very bad. I did not serve God, I served communism. I feel sorry about the killings and the past.” [1]

Duch fully confessed to his involvement with the secret police and S-21.  After Dunlop and Thayer broke the news, Duch went into hiding for a couple days before finally turning himself in to the police.

Dunlop has no doubt Duch’s commitment to Christ played a role in his confession and arrest. To date, Duch is the only major leader of the Khmer Rouge to confess to his crimes.

In a later interview with Thayer, published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Duch said he was willing to testify against the other perpetuators and feared for his life because of his willingness to do so.  “It is OK, they can have my body,” he said, “Jesus has my soul. It is important that this history is understood. I want to tell you everything.” [2]

Duch has been in prison since 1999. On July 31, 2007, he was the first member of the Khmer Rouge to be charged by Cambodia’s genocide tribunal for crimes against humanity.

I wondered how he was doing. So this past June, I contacted Christopher LaPel and received an encouraging report about Duch who sits in a military prison in Phnom Penh just a few blocks away from S-21.

“Yes, I would like to answer your questions regarding Khang Khek Ieu or Hang Pin or Duch, one of my disciples and one of our leaders serving our Lord Jesus Christ in Northwest Cambodia before he came forward … Yes, he is in jail in Phom Penh and he [is] still preaching and sharing God’s word with people around him.”

The work on the Cross

Duch’s conversion is a powerful testament of the complete work of Jesus on the Cross.

Paul said we are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1).  The word justification, Gk dikaiosis, is a legal term. It does not mean to make upright or to infuse with righteousness despite what you did, rather justification means you were declared not guilty because there is no evidence to condemn you.

Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  The apostle Peter said it this way, “and He (Jesus) Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.”

At the moment of salvation, all of Duch’s acts of torture and murder were transferred on to Jesus and God no longer has any record of this sin.

Though Duch will be found guilty of all charges in the earthly trial, he is acquitted of all charges in the heavenly.

In fact, Paul wrote: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).  The word more in the Greek “huperperisseuo” implies “super abundant.” There is “super abundant” grace available to cover the worst of sins and the most evil of sinners.  Simply interpreted: where there is great sin, there will be more than enough grace to cover it.

LaPel forgives

When Christopher LaPel found out who his disciple was, he personally had to come to grips with the issue. His parents, brother and sister were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. One cousin, a science professor, even ended up in S-21 and her photo hangs on the wall.

“I was shocked when I found out who he really was,” Chris said in a TimesAsia article, “because what he did was so evil.”  “Then I reflected it’s amazing; it’s a miracle. Christianity changes people’s lives. If Jesus can change Duch, He can change anyone.” [4]

LaPel holds no anger towards Duch and has completely forgiven him.

March 3, 2008: Update:

According to a report in the British newspaper, Independent, at the end of February, 2008, the UN Tribunal took Duch to the killing fields of Cambodia.

The tribunal is bringing to justice those responsible for the slaughter of 1.7 million Cambodians during the brutal four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. This brutal time in Cambodian history was made famous by the movie “The Killing fields.”

Though Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge died in 1998, the tribunal is taking five Khmer leaders to court in July of this year.

One of those is Duch — the chief torturer of the Khmer Rouge — who operated Tuol Seng, a prison camp where 20,000 men, women and children were brutally tortured then murdered. But since then Duch has become a born-again Christian and the full story of his incredible conversion is recorded below.

On February, 26, 2008, the tribunal took Duch to the Killing Fields to re-enact what happened.

The convoy made up of 80 tribunal judges and staff was heavily guarded as traveled to its first stop Choeung Ek. It is one of the best know mass graves in Cambodia and pieces of bones and cloth still litter the site.

When they arrived, Reach Sambath speaking on behalf of the tribunal said, “It was emotional, of course, and very quiet. Everyone was very quiet.”

At the site, the four guards from Tuol Seng who were brought along as witnesses provided testimony as did Duch who has fully confessed to his crimes and said repeatedly he will testify if called upon.

It was here that Duch first broke down. It happened when the group passed a tree with plack saying babies were killed by bashing their heads against its trunk.

The second occurred when the convoy arrived at a Buddhist pagoda also known as a stupa. Stupas are traditionally used as memorials to help people remember and this one contained the skulls of 8,000 Cambodians killed by the Khmer. Duch fell to ground crying and praying.

UPDATE Source: Tears and prayers as Khmer Rouge ‘torturer’ is taken back to the Killing Fields by Andrew Buncombe ( February 27, 2008)



[1] On the trail of Pol Pot’s chief executioner, by Nic Dunlop (Prospect Magazine, August 2002)

[2] Duch implicates living Khmer Rouge leaders in killing (Far Eastern Economic Review: May 4, 1999)

[3] Christianity finds home in Cambodia, but death questioned, by Chris Fontaine (Laredo Morning Times: January 23, 2000)

[4] The killer and the Pastor, by Caroline Gluck (TimeAsia: July 12, 1999)

Others sources: Tribunal finally ready to probe ‘Killing Fields’, by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail June 14, 2007: Toronto, Ontario Canada) / Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Moody Press: Chicago) / Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (WM B Eerdmans

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Persecution – gentlepen

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