When a British schoolteacher named John Dewhirst met Stuart Glass and Kerry Hamill during a trip to Malaysia, the three ended up spending several months in Kuala Terengganu before heading north to Bangkok. Somewhere along the way, and for reasons that are still unclear, the trio found themselves on a boat called Foxy Lady somewhere off the coast of Cambodia.
The trio was seized by members of the Khmer Rouge regime under the auspices of Pol Pot. During the takeover of the boat, Glass was shot and killed, while Dewhirst and Hamill found themselves facing a fate worse than death…
Dewhirst was born with a love and verve for life that was mostly unsurpassed. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1952, his father was the headmaster of a school and his mother was an antique dealer. At the age of 11, the Dewhirsts moved to Cumbria where John became a sports enthusiast and a lover of the great outdoors.
During his time at the Appleby Grammar School, Dewhirst discovered his love for poetry and writing and had plans to become a novelist. He even won a scholarship to study at Loughborough University where he trained as a teacher. But his thirst for adventure soon got the better of him, and Dewhirst made plans to visit Japan to teach English.
During a visit to friends in the eastern Malaysian town of Kuala Terengganu, on his way from Japan back to the UK, Dewhirst met Glass and Hamill, and the trio traveled for several months together on the Foxy Lady vessel. But en route to Bangkok, the friends found themselves in hot water, having veered accidentally into Cambodian territory.
While Glass was killed during the takeover of the boat, Dewhirst and Hamill were captured by troops from the Khmer Rouge regime and taken to an interrogation center called S-21. When Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and overthrew the Pol Pot regime, they also liberated the S-21 center. Nine missing westerners were also found in the prison files.
Nine westerners made global headlines when it was confirmed that they had been taken to the S-21 facility. Four Americans, two Australians, and others, plus forced confessions from Dewhirst and Hamill were also found. The files revealed that the duo was taken to Phnom Penh after their capture and like everyone who made it to S-21, were brutally tortured.
While the extent of the torture that Dewhirst faced is unclear to this day, there was a note on his file written by the S-21 commissioner, Kang Kew Iew, also known as Comrade Duch. The comment noted that Dewhirst was “very polite” according to Iew, but his manners were not able to save him from much pain and ultimately death.
After the deaths of the westerners was reported by ABC News journalist Jim Laurie and freelance photographer Edward Rasen, people in the UK were shocked to read that Dewhirst was likely burnt to death to remove all traces of him. During the trial of Duch, he claimed that he received orders from his superiors that the bodies of the murdered westerners had to be burned to remove all traces of their remains.
A person who took the mantle for her dead brother was Hilary Dewhirst. She told reporters, according to a Telegraph report, that she wants her brother’s case to be detailed in the prosecution indictment against Kang Kek Iew. Hilary, like many people, wants justice for their family who suffered unthinkable pain at the hands of the regime in Cambodia.
To add insult to injury, Dewhirst was tortured into admitting he was a CIA spy, sent to Cambodia to bring the regime down. During the Duch trial, he apologized for killing an estimated 14,000 people. “It’s hard to believe Duch’s confession and apology,” Hilary told reporters, noting that her brother had now been dead for 32 years without seeing justice.
Hilary was perturbed when she found out from a courtroom clerk that there were rumors of Duch being released from jail as he had already served a bunch of time. “There has been some talk about releasing Duch because he has been in prison for so long. To me that would be wrong,” she said.
Having tortured and killed thousands of innocent people, Duch has tried just about every trick in the book to get some clemency from the UN-backed trial against him. He apologized profusely for what he did and told the court that he had become a born-again Christian and wanted to repent for his sins. However, Hilary cannot forgive this man and wants to see him behind bars forever.
Being unable to attend to the court case in person, Hilary has been following the events closely from her home in Cumbria. “I’ve seen video where things are put to him,” she said. “There is no reaction. The man seems to be so controlled, without emotion. I haven’t seen any evidence of him showing any remorse at all. He doesn’t look as if he is sorry. Maybe he is.” But, as Hilary noted, “he can’t undo what he did.”
Hilary explained to the Telegraph: “Duch said a lot about having no choice about what he did. He claimed that if he hadn’t followed orders, he or his family would have been killed. Well, he didn’t seem to show any remorse in 1979 when the Vietnamese came and liberated the country,” she said. “I feel strongly that it is not within my remit to forgive inhuman acts. How could you forgive?”
There’s little question that Duch would have evaded justice if he could have, as he was living for years in hiding in a refugee camp. He was one of the most notorious cogs in the Khmer Rouge’s killing machine and, having joined the communist movement in his 20s, he became the right-hand man of the regime leader.
The savage treatment of prisoners under this regime is unprecedented in human history. False confessions would be gotten using torture as people were manacled, starved and beaten. Some prisoners received electric shock treatment and waterboarding while others had their toenails pulled off. This was a highly effective way of extracting false confessions which led to brutal murders.
Many Cambodians blame the Americans for the slaughter of their people. They claim that after the USA bombed North Vietnamese supply lines in 1969, this paved the way for fighting which ultimately led to the Khmer Rouge takeover. The fact that the US and the UK gave support to the Khmer Rouge regime initially makes the situation even more complicated.
While most Cambodians still live in abject poverty, the tribunal is thought to have cost in the order of $100 million, and that’s why many people have suggested it be scrapped. Hilary disagrees strongly. “I hope some light is being shed on how the mass murder happened, how the rest of the world ignored it and allowed it to happen. It was so similar to what happened under the Nazis,” she said.
The bereaved sister added: “Young people in Cambodia don’t seem to know about their own history. I think more than anything that is what I wanted to come out of the trial – better knowledge and understanding. If the world knows what happened, perhaps it is less likely to happen again,” she said.
While Hilary is happy that the men who killed her brother will potentially be brought to justice, she explained that the last things she wants are details. “I prefer not to know exactly what happened,” she said. “Knowing the details would be terrible. The best way for him to die would have been a knock on the head before they pushed him into a pit. That would have been after weeks of torture. He might have died in a much worse way.”
While the pain of losing her brother in such a tragic way is something Hilary may never get over, she feels that she will get the closure she so badly needs if Duch is sentenced to life in prison. “I am sure the problem is the extraordinary circumstances in which John died. The terror he must have felt, weeks of torture, the physical pain, loneliness. It is imagining how he must have felt during that time that is so difficult, not just the fact that he died,” she said. “I try not to think about it. But it never goes away.”