Khmer Rouge leader in dock as Cambodia genocide trial starts

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, one of five to face war crimes charges before long-delayed UN-backed tribunal

Hundreds of people, some of them survivors of the murderous Khmer Rouge, queued for hours today to see the opening of the first trial of the Cambodian regime's leaders.

Kaing Guek Eav, 66, better known as Duch, sat in the dock behind a bullet-proof screen in a court that was purpose-built to house the UN-backed genocide trial.

The regime's chief torturer had been driven in an armoured four-wheel drive vehicle from the villa where he is being held, for the historic trial which comes 30 years after the end of Pol Pot's brutal ultra-Maoist tyranny that left 1.7 million Cambodians dead.

Duch is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of at least 12,380 prisoners at Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng torture centre. The opening days of the trial, however, will be taken up with procedural issues.

The mood among the 800 people — including orange-robed monks — who waited in line to enter the courtroom was a mixture of trepidation and elation at the opportunity to witness a Khmer Rouge leader finally facing justice.

Duch, a born-again Christian who has acknowledged his crimes, sat impassively in the court. Wearing a pale blue shirt, he occasionally sipped water and donned his reading glasses to take notes of the proceedings translated through his headphones.

Van Nath, 63, one of only a handful of survivors to emerge from Tuol Sleng, took his place in the queue to witness a day he long remained sceptical he would ever see.

"This is the day we have waited for for 30 years," said the artist, who was beaten by Tuol Sleng guards but spared because of his painting talent. "But I don't know if it will end my suffering."

Phok Khan, 56, said the sight of Duch in the court brought memories of the terror flooding back. "When I see Duch, my anger comes back," he said during a break in the proceedings.

Duch is the first of five defendants to appear before the long-delayed tribunal. Although he has made no formal confession, he has, unlike the other defendants, "admitted or acknowledged" that many of the crimes occurred at his prison, according to the indictment from court judges. He has also asked for forgiveness from his victims.

He has been variously described by those who knew him as "very gentle and kind" and a "monster". In an indictment in August the tribunal said: "Duch necessarily decided how long a prisoner would live, since he ordered their execution based on a personal determination of whether a prisoner had fully confessed" to being an enemy of the regime.

In one mass execution, he gave his men a "kill them all" order to dispose of a group of prisoners. On another list of 29 prisoners, he told his henchmen to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest".

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names and as a converted Christian before he was located in north-west Cambodia by a British journalist in 1999.

Taken to the scene of his alleged crimes last year, he wept and told some of his former victims: "I ask for your forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might."

His defence lawyer, Francois Roux, said today that his client had been in detention for nine years, nine months and seven days, adding: "This situation is unacceptable."

Duch's hearing before the tribunal is expected to last two or three days.

Others facing trial are Khieu Samphan, the group's former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue.

All four have denied committing crimes.


Ian MacKinnon, south-east Asia correspondent, and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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