PHNOM PENH, Nov 27 – Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch asked Cambodia\’s UN-backed war crimes court Friday to acquit and release him, in a surprise development on the final day of arguments in his trial.
The 67-year-old had previously admitted responsibility in court for overseeing the murders of 15,000 men, women and children at the notorious S-21 or Tuol Sleng torture centre, and begged for forgiveness for his crimes.
"I would ask the chambers to release me. Thank you very much," Duch said at the end of his closing statement to the court, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Following a query by stunned judges, Duch\’s Cambodian lawyer Kar Savuth confirmed that Duch was asking to be acquitted on the grounds that he was not a senior member of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.
International prosecutors earlier this week asked judges to impose a jail sentence of 40 years on Duch — a former maths teacher whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav — for his role in the brutal 1975-1979 communist regime.
Tuol Sleng was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge security apparatus. Inmates were taken from there during Duch\’s tenure for execution at a nearby orchard now known as the "Killing Fields".
Under their leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly two million people through starvation, overwork and execution in their bid to turn Cambodia back to a rural "Year Zero".
During the nine-month trial, Duch\’s defence team has appeared to focus on getting a lighter sentence, by contesting his position within the regime and by highlighting his remorse, his time already served and his cooperation.
But in the past week there have been signs of disharmony between Duch\’s Cambodian lawyers and his international counsel over their strategy.
Kar Savuth said Wednesday for the first time that Duch should be acquitted, while French defence lawyer Francois Roux on Thursday said only that the court should consider Duch\’s expressions of remorse in mitigation when sentencing.
Prosecutors said they were "surprised" by Duch\’s last-minute request.
"The fact that he (Duch) entered a request for an acquittal reinforces in our mind that the remorse is limited," international prosecutor Bill Smith told a hastily arranged press conference at the court.
"We the co-prosecutors have been taken by surprise. It\’s still in my mind unclear whether there was agreement or disagreement between the national and international counsel," Smith said.
But he said that there appeared to have been enough cooperation in the defence team to ensure that Duch would not be able to appeal against the judgement on the grounds that he was not properly represented.
The court\’s panel of five judges — two of them foreign — is expected to hand down a verdict early next year. The tribunal can impose a maximum life term and does not have the power to impose the death penalty.
The court, set up in 2006 as a final chance to find justice for victims of the blood-soaked regime, has already been mired in controversy over alleged political interference and allegations about kickbacks in return for jobs.
"Because of the behaviour of the defence it was a good day for the prosecution but an unfortunate day for justice and a very disappointing day for the victims," said Eric Holder, a human rights professor from the University of California at Berkeley, who is attending the trial.
Pol Pot died in 1998. The joint trial of four other more senior Khmer Rouge leaders is expected to start in 2011, while the court is considering whether to open cases against five other former Khmer Rouge cadres.