Cambodia opens first 'Killing Fields' trial

The torturer-in-chief of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime went before a UN-backed genocide tribunal on Tuesday for the long-awaited first trial over the "Killing Fields" atrocities of the 1970s.

Tourists visit a mass grave site of 450 Khmer Rouge victims at the Choeung Ek site of the 'Killing Fields' located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh February 16, 2009.

Former maths teacher Kaing Guek Eav -- better known as Duch -- sat glumly in the dock to face charges that he ran the main prison centre for the hardline communist regime, which killed up to two million people.

"This first hearing represents the realisation of significant efforts in establishing a fair and independent tribunal to try those in senior leadership positions," chief judge Nil Nonn said at the opening of the trial.

Duch, 66, wore a blue shirt and listened through earphones as the court held its initial hearing behind a huge bullet-proof screen, designed to prevent revenge attacks by victims of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

For Cambodians the controversial tribunal, established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations, is seen as the last chance to bring the Khmer Rouge's leaders to justice.

"I prayed for dawn as soon as possible so that I could see this trial start," artist Vann Nath, one of only about a dozen survivors from the prison, said outside the court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Duch was indicted last year for allegedly personally overseeing the torture and extermination of more than 15,000 men, women and children when he headed Tuol Sleng, built in a former high school.

Now a born-again Christian, he is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder and faces a sentence of life in prison from the tribunal. It does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Duch was transported in an armoured Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows from the nearby villa where he is being held with four top Khmer Rouge leaders, who all face trial later this year.

His first hearing is expected to last less than three days as it involves procedural matters.

Defence lawyer Francois Roux told the court that Duch had been held without trial for more than nine years, branding it "unacceptable."

Duch was arrested in 1999 when a journalist found him working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle, and was formally transferred to the tribunal in July 2007.

He has previously expressed regret for his crimes but has said that he was acting under orders from top Khmer Rouge leaders.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and execution.

Rising to power as a tragic spin-off from the US conflict in Vietnam, the movement emptied Cambodia's cities to take society back to a rural "Year Zero," purging city dwellers, intellectuals and even people who wore glasses.

Tuol Sleng was used to extract false confessions from alleged traitors and thousands of inmates were taken from there during Duch's tenure for execution at nearby Choeung Ek, an orchard now known as the "Killing Fields."

The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese-backed forces after a reign of terror lasting three years, eight months and 20 days. Pol Pot died in 1998.

The tribunal has been delayed by legal arguments and bail hearings, and has faced controversy over allegations of political interference by the government over the prosecution of further suspects.

But joint investigating judge Marcel Lemonde insisted it was crucial for Cambodia's healing, telling AFP it was an "opportunity to decide not just individual responsibility but also organise a public debate."

Source: AFP

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