PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's international genocide tribunal charged the head of a Khmer Rouge torture center with crimes against humanity on Tuesday, a historic first indictment against a top figure in the communist regime that created Cambodia's infamous killing fields.
The suspect, Kaing Guek Eav, has acknowledged heading the S-21 prison, where the Khmer Rouge's suspected enemies were tortured before being taken to killing fields near the capital. An estimated 1.7 million people died from hunger, disease, overwork and execution when the Khmer Rouge was in power in 1975-79.
The 62-year-old, also known as Duch, was one of five top Khmer Rouge figures whose indictments were recommended by prosecutors of the tribunal, which is a mixed body of Cambodian and international jurists. The judges have not yet released the names of the other four.
His prison in Phnom Penh kept meticulous records of victims, which are likely to serve as key evidence in any trial.
According to a transcript of a 1999 government interview obtained by The Associated Press, Duch claimed he was not a "cruel" man, but "an individual with gentle heart caring for justice ... since childhood."
Like other former Khmer Rouge figures, has said he was simply following orders from the top to save his own life.
"I was under other people's command, and I would have died if I disobeyed it. I did it (duty) without any pleasure, and any fault should be blamed on the (Khmer Rouge leadership), not me," he told a government interrogator after his arrest.
Some 16,000 people were imprisoned at S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Only about a dozen of them are thought to have survived when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion.
Chum Mey, a 77-year-old prison survivor, said he was delighted to hear that Duch had been brought to the tribunal.
"I want to confront him to ask who gave him the orders to kill the Cambodian people," he said.
Like many senior Khmer Rouge, Duch had an academic background. A student who excelled in math, he was a schoolteacher and then deputy principal of a provincial college.
He was jailed for his leftist sympathies and opposition to the corrupt leadership of mid-1960s Cambodia. By 1970, he had fled to the jungle to join the Khmer Rouge.
Even before the Khmer Rouge came to power, he ran a prison for the group in the jungle, where suspected enemies were held and executed.
After the Khmer Rouge were forced out, Duch disappeared for almost two decades, living under various names in a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwestern Cambodia, where he converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries.
His chance discovery by a Western photojournalist led to his arrest in May 1999.
Cambodia first sought U.N. help in 1997 to set up a tribunal, but it took years of tough negotiations before the two parties signed a pact in 2003 agreeing to hold trials. With further delays since then, the first trials are not expected until early next year.