PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The man accused of being the Khmer Rouge's chief torturer put down his prepared speech, removed his eyeglasses and gazed at the courtroom audience as he pleaded for forgiveness from the country he helped terrorize three decades ago.
"At the beginning I only prayed to ask for forgiveness from my parents, but later I prayed to ask forgiveness from the whole nation," Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch — recounted on the second day of his trial before Cambodia's genocide tribunal.
The hundreds of spectators seated on the other side of a glass wall in the courtroom — including relatives of the regime's victims — listened intently to the gripping testimony.
The tribunal's proceedings are the first serious attempt to fix responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, whose top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Duch, 66, is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity as well as murder and torture and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Cambodia has no death penalty.
He commanded the group's main S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 men women and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths.
The indictment read out in court Monday contained wrenching descriptions of the torture and executions he allegedly supervised.
Duch betrayed no emotion as he listened to allegations that his prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses, and that children were taken from parents and dropped to their deaths or that some prisoners were bled to death.
He got his first public opportunity to speak after prosecutors gave opening arguments Tuesday.
Duch said he tried to avoid becoming commander of Tuol Sleng, but once in the job, he feared for his family's lives if he did not carry out his duty to extract confessions from supposed enemies of the regime.
Nevertheless, he took responsibility "for crimes committed at S-21, especially the tortures and executions of the people there." He said he wanted "to express my deep regretfulness and my heartfelt sorrow" for all the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Duch offered apologies to the victim's families, and acknowledged that it may be too much to ask for immediate forgiveness for "serious crimes that cannot be tolerated."
"I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness," he pleaded.
He vowed to cooperate fully with the tribunal as the only "remedy that can help me to relieve all the sorrow."
Speaking after his client, Cambodian lawyer Kar Savuth said Duch was a scapegoat and a victim of selective justice while many more suspects with blood on their hands remain uncharged.
Duch is the least senior of only five surviving leaders of the regime scheduled to go before the court.
Critics allege that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought to limit the tribunal's scope because other potential defendants are now his political allies.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge officer, expressed disdain for the court Tuesday during a speech in Cambodia's southwest, saying that adding defendants could spark renewed warfare and mocking the panel's budget troubles. He said he would prefer the court ran out of money "as soon as possible."
At the tribunal, co-prosecutor Chea Leang vowed to pursue justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge.
"For 30 years, a generation of Cambodians have been struggling to get answers for their fate," she said. "Justice will be done ... History demands it."
Duch has been in detention since he was discovered in 1999 by British journalist Nic Dunlop in the Cambodian countryside, where he had been hiding under an assumed name.
Dunlop, who attended Tuesday's hearing, said it was "surreal" to see Duch in a courtroom as victims of the Khmer Rouge watched, but was concerned whether people would learn from the proceedings, which were broadcast on state television.
"Whether it resonates beyond these walls is the big question, and if it doesn't, we might as well be on another planet," he said.
The majority of Cambodia's 14 million-plus population was born after the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge, and many struggle daily to make a living in the poverty-stricken country.
"I heard about the tribunal but I'm not interested in the trial," said Leang Nalin, 22, a finance student at university. "I'm busy and I don't want to know about that. My parents never talk about it."
The trial resumes Wednesday, and is supposed to conclude in early July.