Cambodia begins long-awaited trial of Khmer Rouge leader

"Duch" is charged with crimes against humanity for his time as a prison commander under the regime.

David Longstreath/AP
Cambodians watched as the UN-backed tribunal began on Monday at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Mak Remissa/AP
Former Khmer Rouge prison chief, Kaing Guek Eav, or 'Duch,' was seen during the first day of the UN-back tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Duch is among those charged with committing crimes against humanity for his involvement with the genocide in Cambodia three decades ago.

A former Khmer Rouge prison commander went on trial Monday in Cambodia's war-crimes tribunal, 30 years after the fall of a communist regime blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.

Prosecutors read out the charges against Kaing Guek Eav, known as "Duch." He ran the SS-21 prison in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, whose population was evacuated when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Duch is charged with committing crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, and murder during four years as prison chief.

He spoke in court Monday only to acknowledge his identity and the charge sheet, which described how SS-21 was a death camp for known dissidents as well as a torture center used to extract confessions. Of the roughly 15,000 prisoners sent there, only a handful survived.

"I have already been notified of the charges against me," Duch told the court, according to Agence France-Presse. "Before I was arrested by the military court, I was a teacher."

A defense lawyer for Duch said he would be allowed to address the court later this week. Administrative hearings were held in February, but Monday began the first significant part of the trial. The war crimes tribunal is a hybrid Cambodian-international body based on French law that has so far cost $143 million and has attracted criticism for slow progress on trying suspects.

In his trial, Duch is likely to implicate his fellow cadre, who have denied all the charges and have sought to blame foreign powers for the killings. He cooperated fully with the investigating judges probing the grisly events at SS-21, a former school that is now a museum of torture.

"It's important that someone who was a participant in the crimes – a key link in the chain of command – can set the record straight," says Nic Dunlop, a British photographer who discovered Duch in 1999 while working in a refugee camp in Cambodia.

In addition to Duch, four other Khmer Rouge leaders have been indicted, including Nuon Chea, a deputy leader known as "Brother No. 2."

The movement's notorious leader Pol Pot died in 1998 in western Cambodia, where its forces retreated after Vietnam invaded in 1979. Today, many former Khmer Rouge live freely there under a government amnesty.

A convert to Christianity who has expressed remorse for his acts, Duch is by far the most straightforward to prosecute, says Mr. Dunlop, author of "The Lost Executioner," a biography of Duch.

For a generation of Cambodians born since the Khmer Rouge's rule, the bloody history of the period is blurry. Educators and parents often avoid the topic for fear of opening old wounds. Government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer, have been leery of allowing a tribunal that would delve too deeply into the past.

This effectively limits the court's scope, to the frustration of those who believe that a proper accounting for past abuses can help heal the nation's wounds.

The maximum sentence that the tribunal can award is life imprisonment. Some of the detainees are elderly and in poor health, however, raising concerns that they may die before they face justice.

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