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60 | The day God needed ‘super grace’

Photo of Duch (back left) during his Cambodian trial
Credit: Courtesy of Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia/Wikipedia

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast, I want to talk about the day in 1995, when God needed to use super-grace.

On Sept. 2, 2020, I was surprised to hear about the passing of Duch, pronounced Dook. He was one of the most brutal mass murders of the past century. And I guess by definition that makes him one of the most notorious Christians of that era as well.

Duch passed away at 77 years of age in the Cambodian Soviet Friendship Hospital.

So who was Duch?

A former school teacher, his real name was Kaing Khek Leu and Brother Duch was his revolutionary name when he worked as the chief torturer and executioner for the Khmer Rouge. Led by a man named Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were a radical, extreme left, Maoist group that overthrew the Cambodian government and brutally ruled the country for four years between 1975-1979.

As Pol Pot’s chief torturer, Duch was fourth in charge in the regime.

After taking control, Pol Pot emptied the cities forcing people into an agrarian society where hundreds of thousands of people either died of starvation, were mercilessly killed or simply worked to death.

There were mass executions of former government loyalists and intellectuals including anyone who wore glasses because it meant they could read. Non-Cambodians and religious people, particularly Christians, were also targeted for extermination.

Though, the Khmer Rouge only ruled for four years, it’s estimated this radical communist regime slaughtered 1.7 million Cambodians or over 20% of the country’s population of 7.5 million. The regime’s motto was “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss” and they certainly lived by it.

They even produced a movie about the Cambodia genocide. It was called The Killing Fields and named after the fields were the Khmer Rouge slaughtered and buried 100s of thousands of Cambodians. It won three Academy Awards.

After their ouster in 1979, the Khmer along with Pol Pot fled back into the jungles. However, over the next several years, a few Khmer leaders worked their way back into Cambodia society with some even taking on governmental positions. This did not include Pol Pot who was eventually arrested and died in 1998 under mysterious circumstances.

For decades following the overthrow of the Khmer in 1979, the international community repeatedly tried to convince the Cambodian government to bring the leaders of Khmer Rouge to justice.

It took 30 years and the Cambodian government only agreed to the trials after UN assurances it would not investigate several senior Cambodian government officials over their alleged involvement with the Khmer Rouge.

When the UN trials started in 2008, the first man to face the international court was Duch. He led the Khmer Rouge’s secret police and oversaw its notorious prison camp system used to torture and execute men, women and children who were considered enemies of the state.

Duch commanded S-21, the highest security prison in the regime where an estimated 14,000 people were imprisoned and executed and buried in what became known as the Killing Fields.

Many of the people sent to the prison were actually members of the Khmer Rouge, as Pol Pot regularly purged the party of dissidents real or imagined.
During these arrests whole families were sent to the camps and the children were killed with the younger ones often having their heads bashed against trees. They did this to ensure these kids would not seek revenge when they grew up.

Using extreme measures of torture, including electrical shock and water boarding, S-21 gained confessions for all crimes charged. Only seven people are known to have survived incarceration in S-21.

At other times, truckloads of the prisoners were sent to the prison usually arriving in the evening with orders to kill them the next day. During these executions, guards rarely used guns, because bullets were too valuable to waste on prisoners.

This was Duch’s life as Pol Pot’s chief torturer and executioner.

After the overthrow of the Khmer in 1979, Duch fled into the jungles, taking on an alias to avoid detection.

Though he had briefly escaped government imprisonment, he couldn’t ecape God.

During the Khmer’s reign of terror Christopher LaPel was living in Cambodia with his family. His father, mother, sister and brother were murdered by the Khmer during the purges forcing Christopher to flee the country.

He ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand where he became a Christian and met his wife. They eventually moved to the US and LaPel entered the ministry and began travelling to Cambodia preaching the Gospel and hold leadership training seminars.

In 1995, while in the village of Chamkar Samrong, Christopher met a withdrawn and gaunt man named Hang Pin, who had been encourgaged to to attend LaPel’s meetings by a friend.

Hang made a commitment to Christ and asked to be water 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 commander of S-21 — Duch.

Looking back, LaPel said the only hint of Hang Pin’s dark past came from a comment he made:

“Pastor Christopher, 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 refugee, but still maintained contact with LaPel and continued preaching the Gospel.

But four years later, British photographer and Journalist Nic Dunlop was in Cambodia writing a story on what happened under the Khmer Rouge.

Dunlop was drawn to S-21, which has been transformed into a genocide museum, where thousands of photos hang on the wall of people incarcerated at the prison. He was mesmerized by their desperate and terror-stricken faces.

In his article entitled, “On the trail of Pol Pot’s chief executioner,” Dunlop said he obtained a photo of the camp’s commander Duch, thinking it might prove helpful in identifying the former S-21 commander, if he ever came across him.

In 1999, while on one of his Cambodia tours, Dunlop met Hang Pin in a village in Western Cambodia.

Convinced he had found Duch, Dunlop returned with another reporter the next week and confronted Hang Pin about his Khmer Rouge connections.
After initially deflecting the question, Hang Pin looked at the two men and said:

“It is God’s will you are here. I have done very bad things in my life. 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]

Dunlop has no doubt Duch’s commitment to Christ played a role in his confession and arrest.

When Christopher LaPel found out who his disciple was, he personally had to deal with this traumatic information. Not only were his parents and brother and sister killed by the Khmer Rouge, but a cousin even ended up in S-21 where her photo still hangs on the wall.

Christopher told TimesAsia:

“I was shocked when I found out who he really was, 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]

Christopher added that he has completely forgiven Duch and holds no bitterness against him.

During Duch’s trial that started in 2008, the UN tribunal took him to Cambodia’s killing fields and a mass grave where bones still litter the ground.

They then visited S-21, where four guards from the prison provided testimony as did Duch where he fully confessed to his crimes. As they passed a tree that had a plaque stating that this was the tree where guards bashed in the heads of babies, Duch broke down crying.

It happened again, when the group arrived at a memorial built to remember what happened. It contains the skulls of 8,000 Cambodians killed by the Khmer. Duch fell to the ground crying and praying.

In Sept. 2009, Christopher was asked to speak at Duch’s Tribunal War Trial. For an hour and a half he shared, about God’s power to draw a man like Duch and how God has completely forgiven Pol Pot’s chief torturer.

Christopher said you could have heard a pin drop as he shared the remarkable transformation that took place in Duch’s life because of the Gospel. But Christopher did not ask for leniency and neither did Duch.

In 2009, Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. To date, he is the only major leader of the Khmer Rouge to confess to his crimes.

In June 2015, I contacted Christopher LaPel and asked about Duch who was incarcerated in a military prison just a few blocks away from S-21.

In his email, Christopher wrote:

“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.”

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

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

But could a man as evil as Duch be forgiven.

Remember how Duch told Christopher that his sins were deep, well the Prophet Micah writes, that God’s forgiveness goes deeper:

You will again have compassion on us;
    you will tread our sins underfoot
    and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:19

Then the Apostle Paul adds this explanation in Romans 5:20:

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). 

The word ‘more’ is the Greek “huperperisseuo” and it means “super abundant.” Simply interpreted: where there is great sin, there will be super-grace to cover it.

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

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

And if you are struggling to believe God has forgiven you, understand this super grace has been dispensed for you as well.


[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

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

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