Cumbrian woman's justice hope after brother burnt alive in Cambodia

Hilary Holland

John Dewhirst

By Steph Johnson
Friday, 25 September 2009

(CAAI News Media)

The sister of a Cumbrian man murdered in the Cambodian Killing Fields hopes justice is about to be done 31 years after his death.

Solicitor Hilary Holland spoke to The Cumberland News after the man accused of executing John Dewhirst ended his testimony at a UN war crimes trial.

John was 26 when he was captured by Khmer Rouge military in the Cambodian seas. He was sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng detention centre, camp S-21, where he was one of at least 17,000 people who were tortured and murdered.

It is estimated that almost two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of Pol Pot.

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, was in charge of S-21. He now stands charged with genocide at a UN court in Cambodia.

Hilary has stayed away because hearing the evidence was an ordeal she could not face. A partner at Cartmell Shepherd, Brampton, she has made the decision to talk about John to remind people of the horrors inflicted on the Cambodians.

She said: “The atrocities were as bad as what happened in Nazi Germany. It’s not part of our history lessons but it’s just as important.”

Duch has apologised for his role in the abomination that was S-21, but he denies personally executing or torturing any of its prisoners. He claims he told others to kill and maim because he was in fear for his own life.

Hilary said: “He should never be released from prison. He was giving orders to carry out inhumane acts and it is not possible to forgive his part in it.

“There has to be some justice for the Cambodian people. I’m just one person – this is a whole country that has been traumatised.”

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, beginning a four-year totalitarian regime which has proved one of the most horrific in history. Cambodians were driven out of the cities and made to live off the land on starvation rations. Medicine was banned and those thought to be enemies of ‘agrarian socialism’ were arrested.

Detention centres became death camps with rooms set aside for medical experiments.

John was sailing round the Gulf of Thailand in 1978 with two other men when their boat strayed into Cambodian waters. One of the men was killed immediately but John and the other passenger were taken to S-21. Today the camp serves as a memorial and the land it stands on is called the Killing Fields.

Under torture John confessed to being a CIA agent set on sabotage and was even made to implicate his late father in the mission. In reality he was a graduate who began travelling after finishing teacher training.

Although he was born in Newcastle, his family settled in the small village of Renwick near Penrith when he was 11. They moved to Milburn in the Eden Valley a few years later. A former Appleby Grammar pupil, he went on to study English at Loughborough University.

After several months without contact, Hilary alerted the authorities. She was to spend another year waiting for news. Finally the Foreign Office called with the only official information she ever received – and it was brief.

Hilary was informed that John had been seized and most likely killed. She has never been told exactly what happened, but the UN court heard harrowing claims that he was burnt alive.

Duch has admitted John had no hope of survival. He told the court: “I received an order from my superiors that the Westerners had to be smashed and burnt to ashes. It was an absolute order from my superiors.”

Pol Pot remained free until he died in 1998 and Duch is the first of Khmer Rouge leaders to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Four others are in custody.

His trial began in March and closing arguments are expected to start in November. Duch faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if found guilty.

First published at 05:18, Friday, 25 September 2009
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