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From Khmer Rouge torturer to born-again Christian

The leader of Cambodia's most notorious prison, now on trial, has admitted guilt and asked for forgiveness in accordance with his new faith.

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When the Vietnamese Army sacked Phnom Penh in 1979, Duch fled with the Khmer Rouge to Cambodia's western border. He remained a cadre until 1992, when he moved his wife and four children to the village of Phkoam in Banteay Meanchey Province and resumed teaching math. He used the alias "Hang Pin" to hide his identity.

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Soon after Duch moved to Phkoam, his neighbor, Suon Sito, invited him to attend the local Christian church. Duch embraced the religion and cast aside his communist beliefs, Mr. Suon said in a recent interview.

Duch became vocal about his faith and began inviting others to attend services, says Suon, and eventually became a lay pastor.

Duch's eldest child, Ky Sievkim, said her father baptized her soon after his conversion. "Every night my father led me in prayer. Every Sunday he brought out the Bible and read it to the whole family," she said during a recent interview at her home in Battambang Province. As she spoke, she held in her lap her 1-year-old son Chhin Chonghour, whom Duch has never met.

Duch later started a house church near Svay Chek High School, where he taught from 1996 to 1997. During the work day, he proselytized. "He spoke of Jesus Christ and tried to convince other teachers to believe," said Hun Smien, the school's former director, in an interview at the now-abandoned schoolhouse where Duch lectured French — one of five languages he speaks.

Khmer Rouge identity revealed

In 1998, when local teachers recognized "Hang Pin" from a photo in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Duch urgently requested a transfer to Battambang province, where he became the education director of Samlot town, Mr. Hun says.

There, his evangelism continued. "He asked me to be a Christian," says Sok Lian, a local market vender in Samlot who briefly rented property from Duch. "He told me he wanted to start a church. But he was arrested before he could."

In 1999, a news article revealed Duch's identity and authorities soon detained him. The news stunned his former students and colleagues. "When I saw him on television, I said, 'Oh, Hang Pin is Duch!" recalls the former high school director, Hun.

"I was shocked," says Ms. Kek, Duch's student in the 1960s. Although she remembers Duch as kinder than the other teachers, she is appalled by his deeds. "You cannot erase his genocidal action," Kek says. "You cannot forgive him for that."

Family members see Duch differently, arguing that he is a changed man worthy of forgiveness. "I want to tell the court that my father is a good man, through Jesus," said Mrs. Ky. Duch's sister, Hang Kim Hong, who today lives in Duch's old home in Samlot, said that she prays for his release every day with her children.

Seeking forgiveness

Duch has said he will cooperate with the court during the next three to four months of trial proceedings and attempt to answer all questions asked by the judges.

Alex Hinton of Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights says Duch's trial starts a long-overdue conversation between Khmer Rouge perpetrators and victims. It's also Duch's first chance to seek the forgiveness his new ideology commands.

"His admission is very much a Christian act," Mr. Hinton said during a break in Monday's proceedings. "The question now is whether he's trying to get his sentence down or is genuinely sorry and wants to confess his sins."