Khmer Rouge leader in dock as Cambodia genocide trial begins

Kaing Guek Eav, chief torturer at Tuol Sleng jail, is accused of presiding over 12,380 deaths at prison or 'killing fields'

The first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader for genocide got under way in earnest in Cambodia today, more than 30 years after the fall of the brutal ultra-Maoist regime.

Kaing Guek Eav ‑ better known as Comrade Duch ‑ took the stand in the United Nations-backed tribunal's specially built courthouse, which was packed with survivors and the bereaved of the 1.7 million Cambodians killed during Pol Pot's four-year reign.

Duch, 66, is the first of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his part in the regime's "Year Zero" policy, which disastrously aimed to create an agrarian utopia.

The former maths teacher turned born-again Christian is far from the most senior of the accused, but as the Khmer Rouge's chief torturer who ran the Tuol Sleng, or S-21, prison he was among the most notorious and feared.

Duch is accused of presiding over the killing of 12,380 people at S-21 or in the "killing fields" at Choeng Ek on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, marked today by a grim memorial of thousands of human skulls excavated from the site.

Wearing a white, striped shirt, he took his seat among the lawyers and greeted the five red-robed judges with a polite bow, briefly confirming his name and that he was aware of the charges.

The tribunal, set up after a decade of wrangling, held administrative hearings in the case last month, but today's historic proceedings marked the start of the trial's substantive phase. The lengthy indictment was read out, denying the prosecution and defence the chance to open their cases before the session was adjourned.

Detailing what took place on the "killing fields", the indictment read: "Several witnesses said that prisoners were killed using steel clubs, cart axles, and water pipes to hit the base of their necks. Prisoners were then kicked into the pits, where their handcuffs were removed. Finally the guards either cut open their bellies or their throats. After the executions were complete, the guards covered the pits."Duch, who faces a maximum life sentence but not the death penalty as the court does not have that power, will address the court later this week when he is expected to apologise for the atrocities.

"It's certain that he will use the opportunity given to him to speak to the judges, to the victims and, beyond that, with the Cambodian population," Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux, said.

The case has generated huge interest in Cambodia among those searching for answers about relatives among the quarter of the country's population who died of disease, torture, starvation, or were executed during the regime's rule between 1975 and 1979.

About 500 people queued in the tropical sun from just after dawn to take their places in the courtroom behind bulletproof screens to prevent revenge attacks on the defendants. Proceedings were broadcast live on television, with an estimated 70% of the 14 million Cambodians expected to watch.

Svay Simon, a 64-year-old farmer whose leg was blown off by a Khmer Rouge bomb in 1975, was among those who crowded in. He lost 10 relatives, including his sister and brother, to the regime.

"I never thought I would have a chance to see Duch and sit in on this trial," he said, walking with a cane as he entered the courtroom.

The trial is expected to last several months and pave the way for the hearings against the four other elderly leaders, who are not likely to face justice until next year.

Duch, who was working for Christian groups in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border until his discovery in 1999, is the only defendant to admit his role. He is expected to give evidence against the others, including Pol Pot's deputy, "brother number two", Nuon Chea.

Tuol Sleng prison

Tuol Sleng ‑ known by the codename Security Office 21 or S-21 ‑ was a secretive prison set up in a Phnom Penh school. Only a handful of the 14,000 inmates who entered the compound survived.

Now a museum, the walls are covered with haunting black-and-white photographs of the men, women and children sent there.

Duch oversaw interrogations at the centre, meticulously documenting confessions extracted under an array of brutal torture methods: electrocutions, mock drowning, toenails and fingernails pulled out with pliers.

Most inmates were eventually persuaded to confess to being spies for America's CIA, though even Duch expressed doubt about the veracity of the "confessions".

Those who did not die under the structured torture regime were taken to the Choeng Ek "killing fields".

Under headlights from lorries, Khmer Rouge guards made prisoners kneel before pits and killed them with a blow to the neck with an iron bar, slitting their throats for good measure. Duch sometimes watched from beneath a tree.


Ian MacKinnon, south-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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