Trial of Khmer Rouge Torture Boss Opens

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, March 30 -- Three decades after Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge were flushed from power, a prominent regime official stood in the dock Monday for the first time to answer charges of crimes against humanity, breaches of the laws of war, murder, and torture.

Kaing Khek Iev, who is better known by what he describes as his "revolutionary" name, Duch, ran the Khmer Rouge's most notorious torture center, Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. An estimated 16,000 men, women and children died there between 1975 and 1979.

He is the only prominent member of the Khmer Rouge regime to express remorse for the group's attempt to create a communist agrarian utopia, a political experiment that cost as many as 1.7 million lives -- a fifth of Cambodia's population -- through murder, overwork, disease and starvation.

Duch's case is being heard by a court that includes Cambodian and international judges who are working under a system loosely based on French civil law.

"There were autopsies carried out on live persons, there was medical experimentation, and people were bled to death: These were all crimes against humanity admitted by Duch," the prosecutors charged in the indictment. Among the four forms of torture he officially condoned, they said, was pouring water up victims' noses.

Although Duch said little Monday beyond confirming his identity, he has confessed to many of the crimes, admissions he has said were motivated partly by his conversion to Christianity in the mid-1990s. By the time he was identified by a journalist in 1999, he had reinvented himself as an aid worker.

In grainy, 30-year-old pictures taken at Tuol Sleng, Duch stands among the black-clad guards he ordered to carry out "the policy of smashing enemies."

"The term 'smash' was widely understood to mean 'kill,' " prosecutors told the court. They went on to say that if guards allowed a prisoner to die or to commit suicide before the regime had completed its torture, the guards could be branded traitors and find themselves on the receiving end of the electric clips attached to their ears and the fingernail extractors.

If Duch, 66, is found guilty, he could face a life sentence.

On Monday, he attentively read the transcript of the indictment as he sat, dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, in the court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He looked more like the mathematics teacher he once was than a ruthless killer whose careful documentary record of his own brutality now forms a large part of the case against him.

Hundreds of spectators sat behind a glass screen, having gathered to witness a moment that Theary Seng, whose parents were killed by the regime, described as "momentous."

"I'm still processing it, but it is just an amazing sensation after having talked and written so much about it, after having waited personally for 30 years for this court to take place," said Theary Seng, who spent three years in a Khmer Rouge jail and still remembers her mother being taken away along with other adults to be executed.

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