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Would you forgive this man?

The Khmer Rouge finally faces trial for its killing fields, with one leader, Comrade Duch, confessing both conversion and murder: "We killed them like chickens"

Would you forgive this man?

(Eav at a Dec. 3, 2007, hearing.)

Kaing Guek Eav, now a frail 66, admits responsibility for 12,000-14,000 deaths. Three decades ago, known as Comrade Duch (pronounced Duke), he ran a Phnom Penh torture center that was the next-to-last stop for "class enemies" who were then murdered in Cambodian communism's killing fields and buried in mass graves.

In coming months the trial of Eav is scheduled to begin. The Cambodian government is finally charging some Khmer Rouge leaders with crimes against humanity, and in the process rubbing their noses in the enormity of their evil. Judges, lawyers, and witnesses earlier this year escorted Eav to the scenes of his mass murders. They showed him a tree against which his underlings smashed babies' heads. They showed him a memorial that displays the skulls of thousands of his victims.

Eav broke down in sobs. But he did more than that. He knelt on the ground and prayed, because during the 1990s the torturer had made a profession of faith in Christ. In western Cambodia, on the other side of the country from where Eav had been a beast, he had become known as a gentle Christian teacher who walked around with a Bible and helped hungry refugee children.

That rededicated life ended in 1999, while Eav was working for World Vision. A photographer identified him as the master torturer, and Eav confessed, saying, "It is God's will that you are here." Christopher LaPel, the pastor who had baptized him, said he "was shocked when I found out who he really was, because what he did was so evil."

LaPel had great reason for fierce anger: Eav and his revolutionary colleagues had killed LaPel's parents, brother, and sister during the 1975-79 Red Terror. But upon reflection LaPel's reaction changed: "It's amazing. It's a miracle. Christianity changes people's lives. If Jesus can change Eav, he can change anyone."

The Cambodian courts will now deal with the issue of punishment. Eav has told reporters, "I have done very bad things in my life. Now it is time to bear the consequences of my actions. I thought that God was very bad. I did not serve God, I served communism. I feel very sorry about the killings. We killed them like chickens. . . . I guess I will go to jail now, but it is OK. The killings must be understood. The truth should be known."

The truth that is already known: Some 1.7 million Cambodians, one-fourth of the population, died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. What is unknown: Will Eav during his trial stick with his initial confession and willingness to bear the consequences? He's told other reporters that he was "a technician for the Communist Party" and "I followed the orders of my superiors" and "I was under other people's command. . . . Any fault should be blamed on the leadership, not me."

Other unknowns: Will Eav witness to Christ's mercy? He told Pastor LaPel, "I don't know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed against the people." He said he felt remorse for what he had done to innocent people, adding: "Thank God that the Lord forgives me." Will he receive forgiveness from relatives and friends of the Cambodians he had killed? Should he? Can they forgive what he did to others who are no longer on earth to offer forgiveness?

The Boston Globe after Eav's arrest quoted Kong Rian of World Vision, who was involved in hiring Eav: "He showed me his certificate of baptism. He respected everybody. He was very polite and seemed really to want to help people. I would say he was a very, very nice man." But Kong Rian, who lost two brothers to communist executioners, said, "I don't want him to escape trial."

The Globe also quoted another World Vision employee, Chreng Darren, who was Eav's supervisor: "He is a gentle man. . . . You cannot guess the heart of the man. But we should forgive him. If right now he likes to study the Bible, to me it is a very big change."

The punishment Duch is likely to receive should be distinguished from the forgiveness from Cambodian Christians that he may receive-and this Cambodia saga has parallels to the story told in a famous work, Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower (1970).

Wiesenthal after World War II became a leading hunter of Nazi war criminals, but the story he tells in The Sunflower is of an encounter he had in 1943, at an Austrian concentration camp, with a dying Nazi, Karl Seidl. Seidl, an SS member, had asked a nurse to bring him a Jew to whom he could confess his sins against other Jews. The dying man, from his bed, grabbed Wiesenthal's hand and confessed to helping to burn down a house in which more than 150 Jews were trapped.

Wiesenthal makes clear Seidl's deep sincerity, quoting him as saying, "I cannot die . . . without coming clean. This must be my confession. I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

Seidl begged for forgiveness, but he apparently did not die in peace: Wiesenthal said nothing and walked out. Over the subsequent two years Wiesenthal told fellow camp mates of this incident, each time asking them, "Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?" He stipulated that Seidl sounded truly repentant, truly haunted by his sins. He noted that Seidl died the next day and left Wiesenthal all his possessions-but he refused to take them.

Wiesenthal argued that only the victims can truly forgive their perpetrators: The dead cannot offer forgiveness and co-religionists cannot take their place. "Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision," he wrote.

Wiesenthal did not forget and did not forgive. One of fewer than 34 survivors out of 149,000 prisoners originally in that camp-89 members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust-he ferreted out information that led to the arrest of over 1,000 Nazi war criminals. He died in 2005 at the age of 96.

Asked by other Jews why he devoted his life to documenting Nazi crimes and providing information that led to the capture of over 1,000 Nazis, he said that he believed in life after death: "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler,' another will say, 'I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes,' another will say, 'I built houses.' But I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'"

After Wiesenthal wrote in The Sunflower his account of meeting with Seidl, he solicited responses from leading theologians, psychiatrists, genocide survivors, human-rights activists, and others. Of the 53 who responded, roughly one-fourth said he should have forgiven the man. One-fourth said he should not have. One-half did not have a clear position. Christians tended to say Wiesenthal should have forgiven Seidl. Jews tended to say no.

Most of the Jewish respondents were strong on memory and tough on forgiveness. Some cited the sage Moses Maimonides, who argued that no apology is real until the sinner has the opportunity to do wrong a second time and does not. One respondent, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, who later committed suicide, said Seidl was manipulating Wiesenthal and deserved no respect.

Most Christian respondents said Wiesenthal should have forgiven Seidl: Forgiveness is a virtue commanded by God. South Africa's Desmond Tutu emphasized the personal difficulty for Wiesenthal but argued, "Without forgiveness there is no future."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.