Phnom Penh. A former teacher accused of carrying out the murderous policies of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge finally faced trial Monday, as prosecutors opened their first case against the hard-core communists who turned the country into a killing field three decades ago.
A UN-assisted genocide tribunal has charged Kaing Guek Eav, 66, with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide.
Five crimson-robed judges filed into the courtroom, and the defendant followed.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt and brown trousers, he stood when asked to identify himself and gave his name as, “Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch,” his nom de guerre. He then listed other names he used while in hiding after the regime’s fall.
The tribunal is seeking to establish responsibility for the group’s brutal 1975-79 misrule of the country, when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution.
“Cambodians have been waiting 30 years for the Khmer Rouge to be tried for the violence and suffering they inflicted upon the population,” said Professor Alex Hinton, director of Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. “That day has arrived.”
Duch ran the group’s main prison, the notorious torture center known as S-21, or Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh. He holds the distinction of being not only the first member of the Khmer Rouge to face trial for the regime’s atrocities, but also the only one to express remorse for his role.
As many as 16,000 men, women and children were brutally tortured at Tuol Sleng before being sent to their deaths.
Duch disappeared after the group fell from power, living under two other names. He returned to teaching and converted to Christianity before he was discovered by chance by a British journalist in the Cambodian countryside in 1999.
Since then he has been in detention awaiting trial. Only now, after years of political and procedural wrangling, is his case ready to be heard.
“He is obviously a little stressed ahead of this process,” his French lawyer, Francois Roux, said Sunday. “But at the same time, after 10 years of prison, at last the day is coming where he can in public respond to the questions.”
For prosecutor Robert Petit of Canada, “what matters is all the right evidence is put before the judges so they can establish the truth for all to see.”
Monday’s hearing marked the start of its substantive phase, including the first chance for Duch to publicly tell his story and face the families of victims.
Duch methodically recorded the treatment of each prisoner in thousands of documents that were found in the compound after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. One shows Duch’s signature on a list of prisoners, with the words “Kill them all.”