The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

by Thierry Cruvellier

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The Eichmann in Jerusalem for the Khmer Rouge, The Master of Confessions is a harrowing yet humane account of the trial of Duch, a Khmer Rouge operative and the director of the regime's most brutal prison. A renowned war-crime journalist, Cruvellier captures the intense drama of the trial as it unfolds and delves into the Khmer Rouge's rule of terror,

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The Eichmann in Jerusalem for the Khmer Rouge, The Master of Confessions is a harrowing yet humane account of the trial of Duch, a Khmer Rouge operative and the director of the regime's most brutal prison. A renowned war-crime journalist, Cruvellier captures the intense drama of the trial as it unfolds and delves into the Khmer Rouge's rule of terror, offering a psychologically penetrating and devastating look at the victims, the torturers, and the regime itself. By offering us a unique view into the mind of a mass murderer, The Master of Confessions sheds light on one of the most storied genocides of our time.

Editorial Reviews

Le Point
“An exceptional, infinitely troubling work, nothing escapes Thierry Cruvellier’s attention - neither the public’s reactions, nor the court’s idiosyncrasies, the clashes between foreign and Cambodian lawyers, or each side’s motivations and weaknesses.”
“A gripping eye-witness account. Thierry Cruvellier’s book is wonderful. Against the backdrop of modern Cambodia, The Master of Confessions recounts the striking story of Duch’s trial, giving voice to both the victims’ horrifying stories and the torturer’s no less unbearable explanation.”
Le Monde Diplomatique
“A solemn and rigorous fresco, which will open the eyes of any honest man moved by genocide.”
Le Temps
“You have to be talented, precise and infinitely patient to tell the story of a distant international trial - Thierry pulls off this feat masterly… It’s the torturer’s own account that draws us into this book - The Master of Confessions is fascinating.”
La Croix
“An unforgettable book. An impressive, thorough, and well-written depiction of the trial and its audience from the perspective of an outside observer, who through the cathartic experience of watching the trial reveals that ‘torturers’ are not so different from ourselves.”
“Thierry Cruvellier’s The Master of Confessions is a book everyone should throw themselves into. The great reporter delivers a striking account of this lengthy trial. With rare talent, he manages to sketch out the dozen or so protagonists in this tragic show. ”
France Info
“An exceptional narrative, which makes this book so much more than just an eyewitness account.”
Le Monde
“Analytical, thorough and astute, Cruvellier ... steps back and lets his reporting do the talking. … A work of exceptional quality.”
France Culture
“... Thierry Cruvellier has an unrivalled knowledge of international tribunals. [... Cruvellier] put[s] us in the position of impartial, intelligent spectators, by looking upon these trials in a way that is both distanced and engaged.”
La Quinzaine Littéraire
“A brilliant blend of journalism and deeper reflection, Cruvellier’s work - a literary accomplishment - maintains a surprising balance between distance and proximity, objectivity and compassion, fact and experience.”
“A meticulous observer of this unique trial, Cruvellier’s eye is both clinical and critical… A vivid picture of Cambodia caught in systemic slaughter by the Khmers Rouges.”
Libération (
“...With his supple intelligence and bitingly funny understanding, [Cruvellier] shares and decodes the complexities of the trial and its characters. He pinpoints the crucial moments for those who wish to better understand the way that trials of crimes against humanity work.”
George Packer in The New Yorker
“A brilliant study in the mind of a zealous servant to a maniacal ideology.”
Philip Gourevitch
“[An] exceptionally fine portrait of the man and his judgment. . . . [Cruvellier] is an elegant, understated writer, with a keen and rigorous intellect, and a wry, quiet wit.”
New York Times Paperback Row
“Cruvellier, who has reported on some of the world’s most notorious war crimes, recounts the trial of Duch, the director of the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison, where thousands of people were killed. His exhaustive account includes a sly commentary on the whims and limits of the international justice system.”
Portland Book Review
“[A] fascinating glimpse into history and the international tribunal system. . . . For a history buff this is a must read, for the average individual it is interesting, and for the person willing to do some soul searching the experience of this book can be profound.”
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Cruvellier (Court of Remorse: Inside the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) turns his attention to the matter of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, the one-time director of S-21, one of the many prisons run by the Khmer Rouge during their bloody control of Cambodia from 1975-1979. Cruvellier portrays Duch as both perpetrator and victim, butcher and penitent defendant, monster and schoolteacher, in a contradictory manner which exemplifies the banality of evil and the flexibility of the human spirit. Leaving no detail untouched, Cruvellier takes readers in a meandering tour of Duch's life, the corpse-filled reign of the Khmer Rouge, the vicissitudes of the trial itself, and the legacy created. It's a sobering story of a horrifying episode in recent history, rich in detail and thoroughly-researched. In raising the question as to whether Duch was a man caught up in a struggle to survive or a genuinely evil person, Cruvellier tells a complicated, disturbing tale. However, at times the tone shifts from oddly poetic to detached, lending the text a distractingly varied amount of emotion, sympathy, and outrage. The result, though, is an unforgettable, overwhelming, exploration of a tragic period which shouldn't be forgotten or overlooked. Agent: Susanna Lea, Susanna Lea Associates. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In the past 17 years, journalist Cruvellier has attended every trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in tribunals worldwide—among them, that of a man named Duch, chief prison officer of S21, the central prison complex in Democratic Kampuchea. Painful but important reading.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-29
With chilling clarity, a veteran international journalist delineates the totalitarian ideology and horrific crimes of the leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. A witness to and chronicler of the war-crimes trials of Rwanda (Court of Remorse, 2010), Cruvellier likewise attended the arduous eight-month Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2009 of the notorious head of the S-21 "death mill" in Phnom Penh, Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch. Duch managed the prison, formerly a high school, between 1975 and 1979, and he was tasked with interrogating, eliciting confessions by torture and "smashing" the victim—the verb preferred by the court. A meticulous, methodical former math teacher and a loyal Khmer party member, Duch, then in his mid-30s, was the "perfect fit for the job" of interrogator. The pride he took in his work was reflected in the careful records he diligently kept and did not destroy before he fled upon the invasion of the Vietnamese in early 1979. The tens of thousands of his victims (which included children)—Duch constantly corrected the witnesses' estimates—were duly photographed upon entering the prison, crammed in rooms, ill-fed and forced to confess by horrendous methods, including electric shocks, with the directions all annotated in his neat handwriting. Duch created the killing fields at Choeung Ek, the "lowly" act of actual murder relegated to his underlings. A dedicated Maoist, Duch directed his staff on the key elements of maintaining secrecy, fear and obedience. Former guards and victims of Khmer atrocities testified over many months, some more convincing than others; there were only a handful of living S-21 victims—e.g., two artists who were saved only due to the fact that they could make portraits of Pol Pot. The author's portrait of the cool, contrite and calculating Duch is superbly memorable. Cruvellier is an extremely articulate and compassionate observer to a country and its people plunged through the rings of hell.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Meet the Author

Thierry Cruvellier is the only journalist to have attended trials brought before all contemporary international tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since 2003, he has been a consultant with the International Center for Transitional Justice. Cruvellier was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and holds a master's in journalism from Sorbonne University in Paris. He is the author of Court of Remorse: Inside the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

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