By Lisa ChamoffStaff Writer
Over the past few decades, Albert Repicci has found ways to witness history.
In 1963, when he was a 24-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania's dental school, he hopped a train to Washington, the night before President John F. Kennedy's state funeral. In 1998, he contacted then-U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and was able to secure passes to watch the House debate whether to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Today, Repicci, a 68-year-old Greenwich orthodontist and Riverside resident, will travel to Cambodia to watch as a leader of the Southeast Asian nation's infamous Khmer Rouge is tried for his crimes. The radical Communist regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians through execution, torture and starvation between 1975-79, in an effort to create an agrarian utopia.
Repicci will attend the trial as an unaffiliated observer.
Repicci, who has traveled to remote parts of the world performing volunteer dental work since 1980, started working in Cambodia 10 years ago.
"I have always been a student of history, and each of these places I've gone to, I've known the political turmoil that prevailed," Repicci said.
During many of his travels, Repicci said he has identified needs and helped where he could, funding an immunization program in Kenya and a well-building project in Peru.
Before heading to Cambodia for the first time, Repicci read about the growing problem of human trafficking and women being forced into prostitution. He formed a nonprofit foundation called Stop the Tears, based in Greenwich, to help exploited women and children, and helped open a sewing school in Cambodia for women to help them avoid exploitation.
His charitable work has given him a connection to the country and its violent past, which was immortalized in the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields," named for the sites where thousands were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge.
"Being at this trial is a long-awaited venture," Repicci said.
Repicci's foundation works with the national organization Catholic Relief Services to run his charitable projects in Cambodia, and he called the director there to secure an invitation to the public sessions.
When Repicci arrives he expects to see the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, nicknamed Duch, the commander of the Tuol Sleng prison, where an estimated 20,000 people were tortured and killed. Duch is the first of five leaders slated to face the United Nations-backed tribunal.
Duch's trial is expected to begin Monday.
Last year, Repicci went to Cambodia hoping to attend pretrial hearings, but said the lawyers for the accused were so adept at getting deferrals that he never got to see them. He's kept up with the process through Cambodian English-language newspapers, and was able to visit the trial documentation center while in Cambodia. One afternoon there last year, he ended up speaking with the center's director for three hours.
Years of devastation in Cambodia are evident, Repicci said. There are many amputees, the result of land mines laid by the Khmer Rouge that still litter the countryside.
Repicci feels that by attending the trial, he is "establishing an American presence," though he won't be the only local resident in Phnom Penh next week. Benny Widyono of Stamford, a former United Nations diplomat who served in a peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in 1992, is already there.
Repicci will be accompanied by his daughter, Kelly Repicci. The 32-year-old is a licensed mental health counselor who works for a substance-abuse program in Stratford and has a private practice in Greenwich.
Kelly Repicci started traveling with her father when she was young, helping him with a project in Antigua as a first-grader. When Repicci watched the House impeachment debates, he brought his daughter, who at the time was a student at American University in Washington.
The two have both read "The Lost Executioner" by photojournalist Nic Dunlop, who confronted Duch in 1999 and got him to confess his role in the violent regime.
"I have no idea what to expect, but I've done as much research on this matter that I possibly could for the last three years," Repicci's daughter said.
Repicci remembers the chills that went down his spine during the Clinton impeachment debates, as he watched former Republican Rep. Bob Livingston announce he was resigning from Congress after his own marital infidelity was revealed. He imagines the upcoming trial will affect him even more.
"To me, it's one of these watershed events that I want to establish a presence in," Repicci said. "It's one of these rare occasions where a group of despots who had such a horrific impact on humanity are finally being brought to justice."
-- Staff Writer Lisa Chamoff can be reached at email@example.com or 625-4439.