Khmer Rouge torture chief regretful on eve of trial

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Khmer Rouge chief torturer, Duch, asked forgiveness on Monday on the eve of what will be the first trial of a senior Pol Pot cadre in the three decades since the end of a rule blamed for 1.7 million deaths.

The former teacher is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the joint Cambodian-U.N. court set up to prosecute "those most responsible" for the 1975-79 Khmer reign of terror, one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

Also known as Kaing Guek Eav, 66-year-old Duch was in charge at the S-21 prison where at least 14,000 enemies of the ultra-Maoist 1975 revolution were jailed and killed.

"He said to the victims, I ask your forgiveness, I ask your forgiveness," French lawyer Francois Roux told Reuters Television after visiting his client for two hours at a detention center near the specially built court outside the Cambodian capital.

Tuesday's hearing is mostly procedural, with the main hearings due to start in March and a verdict expected by September. But it ends a decade of delays at the tribunal due to wrangling over jurisdiction and cash, and pre-trial machinations.

Advocates hope the tribunal -- formerly known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) -- will serve as a model of professionalism for the country's erratic and politicized judiciary.

But critics say the tribunal's integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference, particularly on the issue of pursuing other Khmer suspects.

Duch is one of five top cadres charged for their roles in Pol Pot's "Year Zero" revolution to achieve an agrarian utopia.

He is expected to be a key witness in the future trials of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, the regime's ex-president Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, its foreign minister, and his wife.

The four others have denied knowledge of any atrocities by the Khmer Rouge during its 1975-79 rule.


A bid to go after other suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal's Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation. The government denied any meddling, but rights groups are concerned.

"Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," said Sara Colm, Cambodia-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Some 300 local and foreign journalists are accredited for the first day of the trial to be televised to a potential audience of millions in Cambodia.

A born-again Christian, Duch has confessed in interviews with Western reporters that he committed multiple atrocities as head of the infamous Tuol Sleng, or S-21, interrogation center.

Most victims were tortured and forced to confess to a variety of crimes -- mainly being CIA spies -- before being bludgeoned to death in a field on the outskirts of the city.

Women and children were also killed. Only a few survived.

"Duch's hands are full of blood. It's time for Duch to pay for his actions," said 39-year-old Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor whose mother was killed at S-21 months before Vietnamese soldiers toppled Pol Pot's regime in 1979.

Pol Pot's death in 1998 was followed by a formal Khmer Rouge surrender which helped to usher in a decade of peace and stability, threatened now by the global economic downturn.

(Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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