PHNOM PENH Feb 17 – The torturer-in-chief of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime went before a UN-backed genocide tribunal on Tuesday for the long-awaited first trial into the "Killing Fields" atrocities 30 years ago.
Former maths teacher Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch — sat in the dock for an initial hearing into charges that he ran the main prison centre for the hardline-communist regime that killed up to two million people.
"This first hearing represents the realisation of significant efforts in establishing a fair and independent tribunal to try those in senior leadership positions," chief judge Nit Nonn told the court.
A gaunt-looking Duch , 66, wore a blue shirt and listened through earphones to lawyers’ arguments as the court launched proceedings behind a huge bullet-proof screen, designed to prevent revenge attacks by his victims.
For Cambodians , the controversial tribunal, established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations, is seen as the last chance to bring the Khmer Rouge’s leaders to justice.
"It is a very important day for me," Chum Mey, one of only about a dozen people to have survived the notorious Tuol Sleng detention centre, told AFP. "I will be a witness and I want to see Duch and ask why he imprisoned me."
Duch was indicted last year for allegedly personally overseeing the torture and extermination of more than 15,000 men, women and children when he headed the prison, built in a former high school.
Now a born-again Christian, he is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder and faces a sentence of life in prison from the tribunal. It does not have the power to impose the death penalty.
Several other survivors and people who lost loved ones at Tuol Sleng gathered outside the specially-built courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for the hearing.
Duch was transported in an armoured Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows from the nearby villa-style detention centre where he is being held with four other Khmer Rouge leaders, who face trial later this year.
His first hearing is expected to last less than three days as it involves procedural matters concerning the structure of the trial, which involves a joint Cambodian and international staff.
Defence lawyer Francois Roux reminded judges that Duch had been held without trial for "nine years, nine months and seven days until today," something he called "unacceptable."
Duch was arrested in 1999 when a journalist found him working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle, and was formally transferred to the tribunal in July 2007. He has previously expressed regret for his crimes.
"A person can’t be held in detention for more than three years under Cambodian law," Roux said, adding he would raise the matter again during substantive hearings scheduled to begin next month.
Tuol Sleng was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge security apparatus and thousands of inmates were taken from there during Duch’s tenure for execution at nearby Choeung Ek, an orchard now known as the "Killing Fields."
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and execution.
Rising to power as a tragic spinoff from the US conflict in Vietnam, the movement emptied Cambodia’s cities to take society back to a rural "Year Zero", purging city dwellers, intellectuals and even people who wore glasses.
The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese-backed forces after a reign of terror lasting three years, eight months and 20 days, but continued to fight a civil war until 1998. Pol Pot died in the same year.
The tribunal has faced controversy over allegations of political interference by the government and claims that Cambodian staff paid kickbacks for their jobs.
The joint trial of the four other Khmer Rouge leaders being held with Duch is set to start later this year after Duch’s trial is completed, although no date has yet been set.
Judges are mulling opening cases against other former Khmer Rouge leaders after a dispute between the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors over whether to pursue more suspects.