Image: Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav
Heng Sinith  /  AP
Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, is shown on screen at the genocide trial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Monday.
updated 4/6/2009 5:03:55 PM ET 2009-04-06T21:03:55

The former chief of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison said his group would not have risen to power in the 1970s if it weren't for the policies of former U.S. President Richard Nixon and his top diplomat, Henry Kissinger.

Kaing Guek Eav (pronounced Gang Geck EE-UU), better known as Duch, made the comments Monday before Cambodia's genocide tribunal during testimony charting his personal journey to revolution.

He also said that he realized early on that the Khmer Rouge would end up as a disaster for Cambodia.

Duch's remarks on U.S. influence in the region were part of his account of the years before the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 regime. They echoed U.S. critics such as Noam Chomsky, who charged that Washington's policies ensnared Cambodia in the Vietnam War, destabilizing the country to the point that the Khmer Rouge could take over.

Duch (pronounced Doik) spoke as the U.N.-assisted tribunal began the second week of his trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as homicide and torture.

Duch, now 66, commanded Phnom Penh's S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng. As many as 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been tortured there before being executed.

Conditions of jungle camps
One of the judges, Jean Marc Lavergne of France, questioned Duch about everything from personal motives to the conditions at the guerrillas' jungle camps.

Duch said he believed the Khmer Rouge would have died out by 1970 if the United States had not supported Cambodia's military-led government following the 1970 coup d'etat that removed Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power and installed Gen. Lon Nol.

Sihanouk reacted by allying with the Khmer Rouge, his old foes, lending them respectability among many Cambodians, which allowed them to build up power during their 1970-75 war against the Lon Nol regime, Duch said.

"I think the Khmer Rouge would already have been demolished" by 1970, he said. "But Mr. Kissinger and Richard Nixon were quick (to back coup leader Lon Nol), and then the Khmer Rouge noted the golden opportunity."

Washington had opposed Sihanouk's neutralist policies because it felt they benefited the communists in Vietnam, who used Cambodian territory as a rear base. When the coup threatened their sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, the Vietnamese communists responded by increasing military aid to the Khmer Rouge.

"I believe that it's true that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the rise of the Khmer Rouge," said Alex Hinton, a Rutgers University historian who attended Monday's hearing. "But we can't say that means it was responsible for the genocide."

Kissinger has always scoffed at claims that U.S. intervention — including the massive bombing of the Cambodian countryside — contributed to the Khmer Rouge's rise.

Kissinger scoffed at claims
Speaking in Thailand nine years ago when formation of the tribunal was under discussion, Kissinger said that critics blame the U.S. for the Khmer Rouge regime even though Washington worked against them for 10 years.

That criticism suggests that the U.S. is "responsible for the Khmer Rouge atrocities because the Khmer Rouge were driven crazy by not being permitted to carry out their murder right away — so they had to redouble their efforts once they came into office," he said at the time.

Duch testified with enthusiasm, earning a reprimand from the bench by sometimes answering questions before they were translated into the court's three official languages of Cambodian, French and English.

The defendant demonstrated a phenomenal memory, reciting without notes people's names and exact dates of activities from four decades ago.

Duch testified about how he commanded a jungle prison called M-13 during the 1970-75 civil war. Prisoners and documents were sent to him, and he saw that Khmer Rouge members were accusing, arresting and killing each order.

He said he realized the group would be a disaster for the country when he heard Khmer Rouge leaders speaking publicly of popular reforms, but keeping secret their plans for a radical communist revolution.

Duch is the first senior Khmer Rouge figure to face trial, and the only one to apologize for his actions. Four more are in custody and to be tried sometime over the next year.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions under the Khmer Rouge.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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