Video: Khmer Rouge torturer apologizes in court

updated 3/31/2009 7:23:09 AM ET 2009-03-31T11:23:09

The man who ran the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison in Cambodia accepted responsibility Tuesday for torturing and executing thousands of inmates and expressed "heartfelt sorrow" for his crimes.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, told the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal that he wanted to apologize for his actions under the Khmer Rouge, whose radical policies while in power from 1975 to 1979 left an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dead.

"I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of the people there," Duch told the tribunal.

"I would like to express my deep regretfulness and my heartfelt sorrow for all the crimes committed by the CPK from 1975 to 1979," he said, referring to the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the official name for the Khmer Rouge.

Duch, now 66, commanded the group's main S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths. He is charged with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide, and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Cambodia has no death penalty.

While Duch's statements amount to a confession of guilt, defendants at the tribunal do not enter pleas. The tribunal says its primary goal is to determine the facts of what happened three decades ago during Khmer Rouge rule and establish responsibility for the starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and executions that occurred under the regime, whose top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Duch addresses survivors
Duch addressed the court after asking permission to make a personal statement after the prosecution's opening arguments, in which he was described as a key cog in the Khmer Rouge killing machine.

He began by reading from a prepared statement and then put his papers down, removed his eyeglasses and gazed directly at the 500-seat audience in the courtroom, filled with Khmer Rouge survivors and other members of the public.

Duch said the Khmer Rouge came to power in an era when Cambodia was wracked by political violence and repression, but that the communist group committed crimes that were "huge."

Video: Cambodia's first 'killing fields' trialĀ  He said he tried to avoid being made commander of Tuol Sleng, but once in the job he feared for his life and his family's safety if he did not carry out his duty, which was to extract confessions from supposed enemies of the regime.

Repeating a sentiment he has already voiced through his lawyers, Duch apologized to his victim's families but said he was not asking to be pardoned for such "serious crimes that cannot be tolerated."

"My current plea is that I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness," he said, vowing to cooperate fully with the tribunal as "this is only the remedy that can help me to relieve all the sorrow and crimes I have committed."

Duch's Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, described his client as a scapegoat and a victim of selective justice while many others remain uncharged.

Four more defendants
The tribunal currently has plans to prosecute only four more defendants, all Khmer Rouge leaders more senior than Duch.

The long-awaited trial against Duch began Monday with a full reading of the 45-page indictment. Executioners threw victims to their deaths, bludgeoned them and then slit their bellies, or had medics draw so much blood that their lives drained away, according to the indictment.

Duch's job was to extract confessions of counterrevolutionary activity, but "every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution," the indictment said.

Prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses; children were taken from their parents and dropped from third floor windows to their deaths, and some prisoners were bled to death, the indictment said.

On Tuesday morning, Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang vowed to get justice for the regime's victims.

"For 30 years, one-and-a-half million victims of the Khmer Rouge have been demanding justice for their suffering. For 30 years, the survivors of Democratic Kampuchea have been waiting for accountability," Chea Leang said, using the regime's name for Cambodia.

Most of Cambodia's 14 million people were born after the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge, and many struggle daily to make a living in the poverty-stricken country.

Motorcycle taxi driver Vong Song, 52, said that he hears people talking about the tribunal, but he's too busy working to pay for his three children's education to worry about it.

"Let the court and the government do it. For me, the important thing is earning money to support my family. That's what I think," he said.

More on Cambodia | Khmer Rouge

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