Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Chief of notorious Khmer Rouge torture center testifies, apologizes

In this image photographed from a TV footage, former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Khev Iev, also know as "Duch," reads a statement today during a trial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The Los Angeles Times

By Brendan Brady and Keo Kounila
Special to The Times
March 31, 2009

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- The head of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious torture center accepted responsibility for the torture and death of thousands of Cambodians today, telling the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal that he was "full of shame and regret."

"I admit that I am responsible for the crimes, torture and execution at S-21," said Kaing Khev Iev, 66, better known as Duch, using the code name for Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed in the nearby "killing fields" outside the capital.

"I apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during the regime. I don't ask that you forgive me now, but I hope you will later," Duch told the court.

He has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder. Duch is one of five detained senior Khmer Rouge leaders believed to be the architects of the ultra-Maoist regime's fanatical rule in the late 1970s, under which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished from overwork, starvation and murder.

Althoughe Duch confessed, he said he was not a decision-maker and described himself as a victim of the regime, maintaining that he was following orders from his superiors and that he and his family would have been killed had he not obeyed.

"I did that because I received orders from Angkar," he said, referring the regime's hidden power center. "Although I knew the orders were criminal, I never dared to question them because it was a life-or-death situation for me and my family."

He showed an illustration he drew of former regime leader Pol Pot flanked by Nuon Chea -- the regime's chief ideologue and another detainee at the court -- and Ta Mok, its former military commander whose nickname was "The Butcher" -- indicating that he saw them as forming the top echelon of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and Ta Mok are dead.

According to the tribunal's rules, Duch cannot plead guilty -- a confession is treated as an element of evidence. Duch faces a sentence of five years to life. If convicted, he is expected to ask that the 10 years he spent in military prison and in pretrial detention be counted against his sentence.

After Duch finished speaking, defense lawyer Kar Savuth said the tribunal had overstepped its mandate by trying Duch, arguing that the defendant was neither a "senior leader" nor part of "those who were most responsible" -- the two categories that qualify a former Khmer Rouge cadre for prosecution.

He said his client was being unfairly singled out. "Duch is being prosecuted as a scapegoat for the other 195 prison chiefs," he said.

Delivering the prosecution's opening remarks in the morning, Canadian Robert Petit said the evidence "will establish without any doubt that the accused had independent authority with S-21 that he used knowingly and actively" to have prisoners tortured and killed.

Duch must have known that his role at S-21 was "part of a widespread and systematic attack on the population," he said.

Phong Savy, a 55-year-old man from Prey Veng province who attended the trial, said the confession may have provided some degree of relief for most Cambodians but that for the families of S-21's victims, no words could alleviate the pain.

"There is no end for their anger and suffering," he said.

Although the trial opened formally last month, this week marks the beginning of substantive hearings during which prison guards, survivors and family members of those brutalized in S-21 will be called upon to tell their stories. Co-prosecutor Chea Leang had invoked the need for national healing in her argument for punishing Duch and for exposing what she said were his crimes.

"For 30 years, the survivors have been waiting for their accountability," she said. "For 30 years, an entire generation has been struggling to get answers about their family's fate."

More than the punishment of a handful of individuals, answers for the population may be the tribunal's most vital function, said Nic Dunlop, the photojournalist who discovered Duch in 1999 near the border with Thailand, long after he had left the Khmer Rouge. By that time, Duch had converted to Christianity and was working under another name for nongovernmental organizations.

"It has to be real justice, not just justice for people in the court, but for all Cambodians," said Dunlop, who was attending the hearings.

Half of the population is under 20 and did not live under the Khmer Rouge. Much of younger generation is unfamiliar with the details of the Khmer Rouge's atrocities -- an ignorance compounded by the lack of Khmer Rouge history in school.

More than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and even for most of those who survived the regime's three-year rule, the tribunal in Phnom Penh is a distant, even if welcome, phenomenon. Unlike other international war crimes courts, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has not had community-based truth and reconciliation committees to extend its reach to the population.

But the court may now be finding more of an audience.

Alexander Hinton, author of "Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide," said the start of substantive hearings that include witness testimony "has absolutely made the tribunal more relevant."

"This is broadcasting on TV and radio -- the whole countryside can hear about it," he said. "This will go out to those kids who still haven't heard about it. Unless the tribunal reaches those people (in rural areas), it won't have met its goals."

Monday was the first time the official indictment against Duch had been read aloud to the court and the defendant.

Witnesses, many of whom were at court Monday and today but remained anonymous, will not testify until next week.

The court, however, heard a sneak preview Monday of the gruesome details of S-21's operations observed by witnesses. The indictment described how the prison had a policy to "smash" -- code for kill -- the "enemies" who were sent there. It also cited descriptions by former medics of about 1,000 prisoners being killed by draining their blood to deliver it to nearby clinics that served Khmer Rouge cadre.

Although Duch's case is seen as the closest of the five to guaranteeing a conviction, Heather Ryan, a court monitor from the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the result is far from a foregone conclusion.

"Duch deems he was not personally involved with torturing prisoners, with a few exceptions," she said. "His personal involvement in torture may be one of the most interesting sub-stories this week."

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