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Khmer Rouge prison chief to face charges

The Khmer Rouge leader in charge of a prison where 12,000 people were tortured and executed is remembered by Cambodians who knew him earlier in life as a gentle man. He goes on trial Monday.
Image: Kaing Guek Eav
Former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav goes on trial Monday, charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and homicide. He is the first Khmer Rouge leader to face trial, and the only one to express remorse for his actions.Adrees Latif / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Meticulous. Conscientious. Control oriented. Attentive to detail. Seeks recognition from his superiors.

That's how a psychiatrist for Cambodia's genocide tribunal described 66-year-old Kaing Guek Eav, who goes on trial Monday. Positive traits for the teacher he once was, they also doomed thousands of his fellow citizens in the late 1970s.

As head of the communist Khmer Rouge's main prison, he efficiently oversaw the torture and execution of upward of 12,000 men, women and children, according to an indictment charging him with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and homicide. His lawyer says Duch has conceded the facts of the indictment.

The U.N.-assisted tribunal is seeking to establish responsibility for the brutal 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, when an estimated 1.7 million died of starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution.

Kaing Guek Eav — better known by his nom de guerre, Duch — holds the distinction of being not only the first Khmer Rouge leader to face trial, but also the only one to express remorse for his action.

His life story seems almost as paradoxical as the madness into which the Khmer Rouge plunged Cambodia when it seized power in 1975, depopulating the cities, banning religion, abolishing currency and sealing off the country from the outside world.

Unlike most of the top Khmer Rouge leaders, who came from privileged backgrounds, Duch was born to a peasant family in Chayok village in the central province of Kampong Thom, about 140 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh.

'Never showed any anger' as boy
A childhood neighbor remembers Duch as a hardworking boy who preferred staying home to study instead of going out to play.

"I used to call him the big head boy because it looked big on his skinny frame," Ma Roun said. "But he never showed any anger."

But the boy's political consciousness was fired up by teachers who railed against corruption and social injustice.

A model math student, Duch moved to Phnom Penh to attend a teacher training school. Leam Sarun shared his quarters in a dormitory at a Buddhist pagoda.

"He said he was not a communist and was only a patriot who loathed corruption and oppression of the poor by the rich," Leam Sarun, now in his seventies, said in an interview last year at his home in Kampong Thom province. "But I came to know about communist doctrine because he preached about it to me."

Duch was a man with a "caring heart" who would take the lead in collecting money for poor friends to pay for medical expenses or teach others to improve their skills in tackling complex math puzzles, he said.

Math student: 'Gentle and kind'
In 1965, Duch took up a job teaching mathematics at a junior high school in the town of Skoun, in the eastern province of Kampong Cham.

One student recalled that Duch sometimes came to class with a copy of Mao Zedong's little red book, and distributed communist leaflets after school with students who shared his views.

The student, Channary Bill, who now lives in Cupertino, Calif., said that though history will regard Duch as a monster, she remembers him as "very gentle and kind, with all the good you could wish for in a person."

Allegations of torture
In 1967, Duch went into hiding with the Khmer Rouge after three of his students were arrested in a government crackdown. He was caught in January 1968 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his political activities.

Freed in 1970 when a coup toppled the government and political prisoners were granted amnesty, he headed to the jungle to rejoin the Khmer Rouge, which took advantage of the political chaos to launch a guerrilla war and then take power in 1975.

Duch was put in charge of a Khmer Rouge jail in Kompong Speu province, where, according to witnesses cited in the indictment, he would personally torture prisoners by burning them, beating them with bamboo and submerging them in water.

When the Khmer Rouge took power, Duch was assigned to its main prison in Phnom Penh, and the following year made its chief.

"Every prisoner who arrived ... was destined for execution," says Duch's indictment. But Duch's main duty "was to extract confessions from prisoners in order to uncover further networks of possible traitors."

Duch has denied personally torturing or killing prisoners, but, in the indictment's words, "has consistently recognized his responsibility for the crimes committed ... under his command."

'Kill them all' order alleged
According to documents, one mass execution followed his "kill them all" order for a group of prisoners. Of 29 other prisoners, he told his henchmen to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest."

Duch methodically recorded the treatment of each prisoner in thousands of documents that were found in the compound after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

Duch himself disappeared. His fate remained a mystery until 1999, when British journalist Nic Dunlop discovered him in a backwater of Cambodia's northwest, which had became a haven for Khmer Rouge veterans.

His life had taken a surprising turn: He had become an evangelical Christian and was working with international aid organizations that were unaware of his background.

"He told me, 'Lord, forgive for what I did to the people,'" said Christopher LaPel, a Christian missionary from Los Angeles who converted Duch.

LaPel, a Cambodian-American who lost his parents, a brother and sister to the Khmer Rouge, said Duch remains steadfast in his Christianity.

"He's very strong in his faith and he's ready to testify," LaPel said in February after visiting Duch behind bars to give him communion. "He's looking forward (to it). He wants to reveal what he did to his people."