Khmer Rouge Trial Opens In CambodiaFebruary 17, 2009
By Sopheng Cheang and Susan Postlewaite (AP)
Cambodian visitors watch portraits of victims displayed in the infamous Tuol sleng Khmer Rouge prison, also known as S21, where thousands of Cambodian died during the brutal 1975-79 regime, on February 16, 2009 in Phnom Penh.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The chief of a prison where some 16,000 men, women and children were tortured before being killed appeared Tuesday before Cambodia's genocide tribunal in its first trial over the Khmer Rouge reign of terror more than three decades ago.
Kaing Guek Eav _ better known as Duch _ is charged with crimes against humanity and is the first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the U.N.-assisted court.
They were among a close-knit, ultra-communist clique that turned Cambodia into a vast slave labor camp and charnel house in which 1.7 million or more died of starvation, disease and execution.
Duch, who headed the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh for the Khmer Rouge, is the only defendant to have expressed remorse for his actions, and on Tuesday he again voiced regret for what he did and sought forgiveness.
"Duch acknowledges the facts he's being charged with," his French lawyer Francois Roux, said at a press briefing after Tuesday's court session. "Duch wishes 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."
This week's hearing establishes the schedule for the trial, which is expected to begin in late March. The prosecution said it will present 33 witnesses over 40 days, while the defense said it seeks to have 13 witnesses testify over 4 1/2 days.
Duch's professed sentiments have no direct legal ramifications, and seem unlikely to change public attitudes.
"It is not only me wanting justice today. All Cambodian people have been waiting for 30 years now," said Vann Nath, one of less than 20 survivors of S-21, who attended the hearing in a courtroom packed with some 500 people. "I look at Duch today and he seems like an old, very gentle man. It was much different 30 years ago."
Vann Nath, who survived by painting and sculpting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, described Duch as a "very cruel man."
Duch, 66, is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape at S-21 prison _ formerly a school _ where suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge _ men, women and children _ were held and tortured, before being executed.
"This first hearing represents the realization of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodian and international law," presiding judge Nil Nonn told the chamber.
But the tribunal has drawn sharp criticism.
Its snail-slow proceedings have been plagued by political interference from the Cambodian government, allegations of bias and corruption, lack of funding and bickering between Cambodian and international lawyers.
Some observers believe Prime Minister Hun Sen _ a former Khmer Rouge officer himself _ is controlling the tribunal's scope by directing the decisions of the Cambodian prosecutors and judges.
Duch has made no formal confession. However, unlike the other four defendants, he "admitted or acknowledged" in some of the 21 interviews by investigating judges that many of the crimes occurred at his prison, according to the indictment from court judges.
Duch has been variously described by those who knew him as "very gentle and kind" and a "monster."
"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, the tribunal said in an indictment in August.
In one mass execution, he gave his men a "kill them all" order to dispose of a group of prisoners, indictment said. 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 converting to Christianity before he was located in northwestern 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."
The trial comes 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated.
Many victims feared that all the Khmer Rouge leaders would die before facing justice, and getting even one of them on trial is seen as a breakthrough. But there are concerns that the process is being politically manipulated and that thousands of killers will escape unpunished.
The Cambodian side in the tribunal has recently turned down recommendations from the international co-prosecutor to try other Khmer Rouge leaders, as many as six according to some reports. This has sparked criticism from human rights groups.
"The tribunal cannot bring justice to the millions of the Khmer Rouge's victims if it tries only a handful of the most notorious individuals, while scores of former Khmer Rouge officials and commanders remain free," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a release Monday.
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.