Khmer Rouge prison chief faces war crimes trial

PHNOM PENH, March 30, 2009 (AFP) - The Khmer Rouge regime's prison chief heard charges Monday that he oversaw the execution of 15,000 people as a Cambodian court resumed the first trial over the "Killing Fields" atrocities.

Former teacher Kaing Guek Eav -- better known as Duch -- appeared before a UN-backed war crimes tribunal set up to deal with senior members of the 1970s communist movement which killed up to two million people.

Duch (C) reads documents in the courtroom at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on March 30, 2009 (AFP Photo)

Wearing a white striped shirt, the 66-year-old who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison greeted judges in the traditional Cambodian manner of putting his hands together, and politely answered questions to identify himself.

"I have already been notified of the charges against me," Duch told the court. "Before I was arrested by the military court, I was a teacher."

Duch sat in the dock while a clerk read the order charging him with war crimes, crimes against humanity, premeditated murder and torture relating to his time as head of Tuol Sleng, also known as S21.

A man on crutches walks into the court room to attend the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, in Phnom Penh on March 30 (AFP Photo)

Judges held administrative hearings in February but Monday's session begins the substantive phase of the trial, in which Duch will be able to publicly answer the charges and face the families of victims.

"Several witnesses said Duch was feared by everyone at S21. He enforced both the general rules of the (Khmer Rouge) in relation to the security police, as well as strict rules which he devised for the operation of S21," the clerk said.

"In addition to executing prisoners condemned in advance as traitors, an overriding purpose of S21 was to extract confessions from prisoners in order to uncover further networks as possible traitors."

The clerk said Duch permitted his staff to use torture techniques including beatings, electrocutions, placing plastic bags over prisoners' heads or pouring water into their noses.

The bespectacled Duch sat with the court's red-robed judges, lawyers and witnesses behind a massive bulletproof screen to prevent possible revenge attacks.

Duch denies personally torturing or executing prisoners, although he has consistently accepted responsibility for the atrocities at Tuol Sleng.

He faces a maximum term of life in prison by the tribunal, which does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Prosecutors and defence lawyers were later to make opening statements for the trial, which is expected to last several months. Duch is expected to apologize later this week, when he will be allowed to address the court.

"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 told AFP.

Many Cambodians believe the controversial tribunal, established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations, is the last chance to find justice for the Khmer Rouge's crimes.

The joint trial of four other leaders of the 1975-1979 regime is set to start later this year after Duch's trial is completed, although no date has yet been set.

Tuol Sleng was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge's security apparatus 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."

Led by 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.

Pol Pot died in 1998.

Duch has been detained since 1999, when he was found working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle, and was formally arrested by the tribunal in July 2007. He was indicted last year.

Source: AFP

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