The ex-commandant of a Khmer Rouge prison faced a special U.N. tribunal in the Cambodian capital on Tuesday for crimes against humanity committed during the genocidal regime that ended three decades ago.
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, did not address the court as his lawyers haggled over procedural matters. Duch was chief of the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where as many as 16,000 men, women and children were executed or died after maltreatment at the hands of their captors.
Duch, 66, a born-again Christian, has expressed remorse for his actions. He is the first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the U.N.-assisted court.
"Duch acknowledges the facts he's being charged with," his French lawyer, Francois Roux, said at a news 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."
As many as 2 million Cambodians died in Khmer Rouge prisons and the so-called "killing fields" from 1975 to 1979.
Hundreds of victims, including saffron-robed Buddhist monks who were persecuted during the Khmer Rouge era, packed the public gallery, reacting with anger and relief at the sight of Duch in court.
Hearings this week are the prelude to a full-blown trial in March, when Duch and survivors are expected to testify.
Duch has been variously described by those who knew him as "very gentle and kind" and a "monster."
"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 to dispose of a group of prisoners. On another list of 29 prisoners, he told his henchmen to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest."
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names and as a converted Christian before he was located in northwestern Cambodia by a British journalist in 1999.
The U.N. tribunal is a landmark for Cambodia and was set up to prosecute the "most responsible" Khmer Rouge leaders. It took years of wrangling to establish the court, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
"Today is history and they hope the court will bring them justice," said Hong Kim Suon, a lawyer representing victims.
The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when the U.S.-backed leader in Phnom Penh was overthrown by the ultra-communist Pol Pot, whose dream of an agrarian utopia led him to cleanse the cities of anyone thought likely to stand in his way.
Prosecutors have promised to produce 33 witnesses over 40 days of Duch's trial, while the defense said it seeks to have 13 witnesses testify over 4 1/2 days.
"This first hearing represents the realization of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodian and international law," presiding Judge Nil Nonn told the chamber.
Four other Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged. A bid to go after more suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal's Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation.
From NPR staff and the Associated Press.