A notorious torture center boss went before Cambodia's genocide tribunal Tuesday for its first trial over the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime more than three decades ago.
Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch, who headed the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh — is charged with crimes against humanity, and is the first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the U.N.-assisted tribunal. The hearing Tuesday was for procedural matters, and testimony was expected to begin only in late March.
Duch, a 66-year-old born-again Christian, is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape at the former school, where up to 16,000 men, women and children were held and tortured before being put to death.
Hundreds of victims, including saffron-robed Buddhist monks who were persecuted during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era, packed the public gallery, reacting with anger and relief at the sight of Duch in the dock.
"This is the day we have waited for 30 years," said Vann Nath, 63, one of a handful of survivors from S-21 where so many "enemies of the revolution" were tortured and killed.
During his tenure at S-21, men, women and children were forced to confess to crimes and then shot or beaten to death in the "Killing Fields" outside the capital.
Only 12 survived, according to the U.S.-funded Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has researched the Khmer Rouge era.
"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 of S-21 who is among survivors expected to be allowed to join the trial process.
Duch and four other aging senior cadres are charged for their roles in the "Year Zero" revolution that ended when a Vietnamese invasion forced the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, back into the jungles in 1979.
Duch is expected to be a key witness in the trials of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, who was the regime's ex-president, and Ieng Sary, its foreign minister, and his wife.
These four have denied knowledge of any atrocities by the Khmer Rouge during its rule, which began by driving everyone out of the cities with whatever they could carry. Pol Pot's communist zealots are blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million people.
If convicted, the five could face life in prison.
After the 1998 death of Pol Pot, who was bent on turning Cambodia back into a strictly agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge formally surrendered, which helped to usher in a decade of peace and stability.
Duch intently followed the proceedings in a courtroom packed with some 500 people after he was was driven there in a bulletproof car from a nearby detention center.
"This first hearing represents the realization of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodian and international law," presiding judge Nil Nonn told the chamber.
While he has made no formal confession, unlike the other four defendants, Duch "admitted or acknowledged" that many of the crimes occurred at his prison, according to the indictment from court judges. Duch, who converted to Christianity, has also asked for forgiveness from his victims.
Duch has been variously described by those who knew him as "very gentle and kind" and a "monster."
"Duch necessarily decided how long a prisoner would live, since he ordered their execution based on a personal determination of whether a prisoner had fully confessed" to being an enemy of the regime, the tribunal said in an indictment in August.
In one mass execution, he gave his men a "kill them all" order to dispose of a group of prisoners. On another list of 29 prisoners, he told his henchmen to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest."
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names before he was located in northwestern Cambodia by a British journalist in 1999.
Taken to the scene of his alleged crimes last year, he wept and told some of his former victims, "I ask for your forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might."
Defense lawyer Francois Roux said Tuesday that his client has been in detention for nine years, nine months and seven days, adding, "This situation is unacceptable."
'Today is history'
The trial is a landmark for the strife-torn country where nearly everyone lost loved ones in the violence, starvation and disease that followed Pol Pot's dream of an agrarian utopia.
It also ends a decade of wrangling over jurisdiction and cash at the tribunal, which had left many Cambodians wondering if Pol Pot's surviving henchmen would ever face a judge.
"Today is history and they hope the court will bring them justice," said Hong Kim Suon, a lawyer representing victims.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the joint tribunal is known, has been called an "experiment in international justice," with domestic and foreign judges working side-by-side to try to ensure its independence.
But critics say its integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference over who to prosecute.
"Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," said Sara Colm, Cambodian-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Four other Khmer Rouge cadres have been charged but a bid to go after more suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal's Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation.
Cabinet spokesman Siphan Phay denied any meddling and said the government wanted to complete the trials of the five people already facing charges before going after other suspects.
"First things first," he told reporters. "We have never said we opposed anything, but let's finish these first."