The man accused of overseeing the torture and execution of enemies of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge rulers faced scores of his victims Monday, as the first trial for one of the communist group's leaders opened at a genocide tribunal.
Victims of the 1975-79 regime, some missing limbs, mixed with earnest law students in a modern courtroom to watch the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, who ran the main prison where every inmate “was destined for execution,” according to the indictment.
The 66-year-old defendant, widely known as Duch, betrayed no emotion as court officials read the litany of horrors that took several hours and was broadcast live nationwide.
“Several witnesses said that prisoners were killed using steel clubs, cart axles, and water pipes to hit the base of their necks,” the indictment said. “Prisoners were then kicked into the pits…. After the executions were complete, the guards covered the pits.”
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The U.N.-backed tribunal on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, is seeking to establish responsibility for the reign of terror under Pol Pot, the group's leader who died in 1998. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the Khmer Rouge, which ruled from 1975 to 1979.
Duch is charged with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide. He ran the group's main prison, the notorious torture center known as S-21, or Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh. As many as 16,000 men, women and children were brutally tortured there before being sent to their deaths.
Duch holds the distinction of being not only the first member of the Khmer Rouge to face trial for the regime's atrocities, but also the only one of five set to be tried to express remorse or take responsibility for his actions.
After all the politics and procedural wrangling that delayed a trial for years, it was a dramatic moment when the five crimson-robed judges took their seats on the top tier of a podium to launch the proceedings.
“Cambodians have been waiting 30 years for the Khmer Rouge to be tried for the violence and suffering they inflicted upon the population,” said Alex Hinton, director of Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. “That day has arrived.”
Duch's job was to extract confessions of counterrevolutionary activity, but “every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution,” said the indictment, which was issued last year when Duch was formally charged.
Interrogators used several forms of torture in order to extract confessions from prisoners. Execution inevitably followed torture.
Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux, said last month that his client wished “to ask forgiveness from the victims, but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims.”
Duch disappeared after the group fell from power, living under two other names. He returned to teaching and converted to Christianity before he was discovered by chance by a British journalist in the Cambodian countryside in 1999.
Human rights groups want the number of defendants increased beyond Duch and the four senior Khmer Rouge leaders being held for trial in the next year or so.