Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, a senior Khmer Rouge figure who ran Cambodia’s most notorious prison during the genocidal regime, died on 2 September.
Pol Pot’s most zealous lieutenant exterminated among others the elder sister of Antonya Tioulong, who came to Geneva to support NGO Civitas Maxima's struggle to give all victims of crimes against humanity access to justice.
As a victim of the Khmer Rouge, Antonya Tioulong helped to write the history of international law with the Duch trial. Now a member of the NGO’s advisory board, she supports the fight of Alain Werner, founder of Civitas Maxima, to extend it further: in four weeks, the Swiss lawyer will represent the victims of Liberia's rebel leader Alieu Kosiah in the first war crimes trial ever held in Switzerland.
In an interview with Geneva Solutions, Tioulong recounts her family’s story.
A life-long fight for justice. “Duch’s death resurrected my confrontation with him during my deposition. The pain does not fade as years go by.” Antonya's voice chokes when she talks about her elder sister, Raingsi, "a radiant personality, so humble, who led a simple life despite her origins". Antonya Tioulong is one of the seven daughters of General Nhiek Tioulong, King Norodom Sihanouk’s prime minister in the 1960s among other high level positions and one of the architects of the agreements ending the Indochina War signed in Geneva in 1954. Her aristocratic origins made the young Raingsi, then aged 31, one of the many victims of a genocide that caused the death of 1.7 million Cambodians - a quarter of the population - and whose agrarian “utopia” surpassed all others in its radicalism. With tears in her eyes, Antonya apologizes for being formal, the only way to remain dignified, while sharing her poignant testimony. She led the fight for her family until justice was done. It took 37 years since her sister's disappearance for the International Tribunal in Phnom Penh to finally condemn her sister's killer to life imprisonment. "A fight for all the victims of war crimes, mass crimes and crimes against humanity," which she is pursuing alongside Werner, who was also present at the verdict. So moved was he by the experience that Werner decided to devote his career to helping victims of crimes against humanity, creating Civitas Maxima in 2012.
A dangerous surname. Raingsi still lived in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital on 17 April 1975. She was the only one of the Tioulong family who had not been sent into exile thanks to her married name, Kimari. Her parents and six sisters became political refugees in France when the Republicans overthrew King Sihanouk in 1970. But as more and more rockets started falling on the capital, Lim's economic situation did not allow him to join his in-laws. Raingsi was working for the national radio and a German laboratory. Her husband, Lim Kimari, was a proxy for a private bank. The couple resorted nevertheless to send their two 10 and 11-year-old daughters Visaka and Nevinka and their eight-year-old son Nitha to their grandparents' home in Paris. They would join them in the summer, they promised. Besides they had already taken their plane tickets. "What is your advice? Should I leave as soon as possible or leave in June as planned? I no longer know what to do,” writes Raingsi in her last letter to her father on 28 March 1975. How could the family ever have imagined the nightmare to come: the French newspapers themselves were talking about “South-East Asia’s Pink Victory”? Instead, the Khmer rouge locked the country up for three years and eight months. Years of "total concern" for the Tioulong family who alerted international organisations and even resorted to crooked mercenaries to locate Raingsi. Even Nhiek Tioulong, who had relentlessly worked for the security of Cambodia, found himself powerless when it came to find the mother of his grandchildren.
In 1979, their cousins, who had survived but arrived in Paris in poor health, finally gave them news of Raingsi with whom they had been captured. Deported 50 kilometres from Phnom Penh, the young women were subjected to forced labour in the fields. Raingsi, who spoke French not to be understood by her guards, was soon noticed, all the more so because she was clumsy. She was assigned the most difficult tasks. One day, they were summoned for questioning. Blindfolded, the young woman, who used to modestly introduce herself as Raingsi Kimari, the name of her husband, spontaneously declared: "I am the daughter of General Nhiek Tioulong. I await his return and that of King Sihanouk". She could feel the Khmer rouge stiffening.
The prison of shame. A few days later, she was transferred to the secret prison of Tuol Sleng or S-21, which was run by Pol Pot's most zealous lieutenant who first welcomed the “enemies of the people” - a non-existent opposition - and then thousands of party executives as the leader’s paranoia grew. It is estimated that 80% of the 17,000 or so victims of this sinister extermination centre were Khmer rouge themselves. Kaing Guek Eav, a modest mathematics professor, became Duch, the key commander of the security services of the regime, "an extremely meticulous, efficient, devoted and obedient comrade, inhabited by the hallucinated principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Duch tortured Raingsi during five months without reason - even after obtaining an absurd confession in which she admits being a CIA agent - until she was “beaten to death". One of her cousin found Raingsi's "confession" in 1979 in one of the tarpaulins of the interrogations still stained with blood. "It was Machiavellian because his interrogations were based on some truth, such as her civil status or the age of his children, and some invention," explains Antonya, who insisted on visiting the scene in 1994 to discover the photo of her sister hanging on the wall among hundreds of thousands of others. "I found a card with her name on it which states that she died on 31 April 1976, a date which does not exist. A typing error?"
A cold methodical murderer. Ironically, it is thanks to these extremely accurate archives that the Duch trial remains one of the most "remarkable of its kind and has marked the history of international law". "Duch was a guaranteed judicial success. He was a co-operative defendant with an amazing memory who recognised the essence of the charges against him. The mass of documents found, his archives, a mine of knowledge on the functioning of one of the most secretive regimes in history, so well organised, formed an unstoppable accusation," explains Alain Werner. The trial opened in Phnom Penh before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, composed of local and international lawyers. For seven months - from March to October 2009 - victims such as Antonya listened to a mass murderer completely detached from his emotions, detailing in a learned and methodical way the mass of evidence accumulated. The 99 civil parties were mostly Cambodians peasants, much poorer than him who was fed by the prison system and who feared reprisals in a country that is not renowned for its judicial independence. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-term ruler, was himself a member of the Khmer rouge until 1977. "Some magistrates were under the authority of the government. I myself was unconsciously afraid. During my deposition, when I was asked my nationality, I answered French, as if to warn them.”
Following the steps of Nuremberg. Duch was first sentenced to 35 years in prison, 18 years of which were deducted, a sentence that shocked Antonya. "It was unbearable to think that this man received the same sentence as a chicken thief. "Finally, in 2012, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, inhuman acts, torture and enslavement. "My family and I feel that we have obtained exemplary justice after an extremely long wait.” But still, Antonya felt bitter when Duch died a few weeks ago in hospital with a much more merciful end than that of his victims. “Imagine our dismay if he had not been tried.” The verdict indeed offered a beginning of resilience for Antonya's children, uprooted and orphaned. Her daughters, who are struggling to rebuild their lives, relied on Antonya to represent them at the trial. Nitha, their younger brother, marked for life by the story of his parents when he was 11, had already succumbed to an epileptic seizure, a symptom directly linked to his trauma according to doctors, upon his return to Cambodia in 1999.
The long path of resilience. The trial made it possible for the people of Cambodia to speak more freely about the genocide which was finally introduced into school textbooks. "How can young people advance in their culture if you erase part of their history? Thanks to the trial, people who had lived in the countryside and who had not told their children anything, either out of shame or fear of the executioners who lived next door to them, told their children about what they had been through. Many young people discovered S-21 with astonishment: they had no clue that a torture centre was in the middle of the city. People came from all over Cambodia to attend the hearings: the room was packed." The Khmer Rouge period was no longer taboo. That's why Antonya continues to testify relentlessly. " The presence of foreign lawyers at our side has been paramount. The victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and mass crimes must be supported in all the countries where this happens. Without justice, there is no humanity.”