PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The former head of a prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured then killed for opposing the Khmer Rouge expressed remorse for his deeds as a long-delayed genocide tribunal got under way.
Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch — is charged with crimes against humanity. He is the first of five defendants who belonged to a close-knit, ultra-communist regime that turned Cambodia into a vast slave labor camp and charnel house in which 1.7 million or more people died of starvation, disease and execution.
Duch oversaw the S-21 prison in the capital Phnom Penh — previously a school, now the Tuol Sleng genocide museum — through whose gates some 16,000 men, women and children passed. Only a handful survived.
Duch's case before the U.N.-assisted tribunal got under way Tuesday, but the hearing was procedural and he did not speak to the panel.
Appearing alert in gray pants and blue shirt, he listened intently to the proceedings. When he was led out of the courtroom, he pressed his hands together, turned and gave the traditional gesture of respect with head bowed.
Duch, 66, is the only defendant to have expressed remorse for his actions. He is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape.
"Duch necessarily decided how long a prisoner would live, since he ordered their execution based on a personal determination of whether a prisoner had fully confessed" to being an enemy of the regime, the tribunal said in an indictment in August.
In one mass execution, he gave his men a "kill them all" order, the indictment said. In another incident involving 29 prisoners he told his henchmen to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest," it said.
On Tuesday, Duch voiced new regret through his lawyer for what he had done and sought forgiveness.
"Duch acknowledges the facts he's being charged with," his French lawyer Francois Roux said at a press briefing after Tuesday's court session. "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims."
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names and converting to Christianity before he was located in northwestern Cambodia by a British journalist in 1999.
Kan Hann, 55, who lives in the same district of Kampong Thom province in central Cambodia where Duch grew up, said he came to the trial because his brother and sister died of starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge.
"My dream has come true now as I have been waiting for the trial for 30 years," he said.
Duch's trial began 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated.
"This is a very significant day for Cambodia and the world," co-prosecutor Robert Petit told reporters. "Today's proceedings bode well for the commitment of all parties to seek justice for the Khmer Rouge."
The tribunal, which incorporates mixed teams of foreign and Cambodian judges, prosecutors and defenders, has drawn sharp criticism. Its snail-pace proceedings have been plagued by political interference from the Cambodian government, as well as allegations of bias and corruption.
The Cambodian side in the tribunal recently turned down recommendations from the international co-prosecutor to try other Khmer Rouge leaders, as many as six according to some reports.
"The tribunal cannot bring justice to the millions of the Khmer Rouge's victims if it tries only a handful of the most notorious individuals, while scores of former Khmer Rouge officials and commanders remain free," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a release Monday.
Others facing trial are Khieu Samphan, the group's former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue.
All four have denied committing crimes.