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Comrade Duch: Man or monster?

Comrade Duch addressed the court in a clear, confident voice. Slight in stature, his arms looked almost childlike as he gripped a thin sheet of paper, reading a prepared statement for the Cambodian people.

"I would like to express my regret and heartfelt sorrow," he told the country Tuesday, after prosecutors had made their opening statement. Duch spoke slowly, and emphatically.

"Please leave me an open window to seek forgiveness."

As the former torture chief's trial entered its second day of substantive hearings, it appeared that the defendant's purported remorse, and degree of responsibility, will become recurring themes as proceedings unfold.

Duch has admitted his guilt already. So rather than deny that he committed crimes, the defense appears to be laying the groundwork for sentencing, attempting to downplay their client's authority under Democratic Kampuchea and emphasize his humanity.

Both Duch and his lawyer, Francois Roux, claimed the Tuol Sleng chief had merely followed orders from superiors. He, like many who lived under the terror of Democratic Kampuchea, feared that speaking out would cost him his life, they said.

Duch seemed to highlight this point in a drawing he presented to the court. It appeared to show Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok presiding over piles of bones.

While Duch's allegedly subordinate position shouldn't exonerate him, Roux argued, it should be considered as a mitigating factor.

Kar Savuth, Duch's Cambodian lawyer, went a step further, claiming the defendant could not be considered one of those "most responsible for the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea," and therefore that prosecuting him was not within the court's mandate.

There were nearly 200 security centers like the one Duch headed throughout Democratic Kampuchea, he told the court, and many of these killed more people than did S-21. Yet none of the other detention chiefs have faced charges.

"Why is Duch imprisoned?" Kar asked the judges. "Is it because he killed fewer people?"

While prosecutors conceded that Duch's cooperation had been valuable to the court, they questioned his motivations and claimed he still had not acknowledged his "true responsibility" for the crimes at S-21.

The defendant would "have you believe that he read confessions all day in his office while crimes were being committed," Robert Petit said during his opening statement Tuesday morning.

Petit said Duch claimed he never personally tortured prisoners at S-21 -- nothing beyond "a few slaps" -- and that the defendant tried to blame much of the detention center's brutality on a subordinate named Hor (who is long deceased).

In truth, Duch reported directly to top Khmer Rouge leaders and meticulously ran his torture and extermination center, Petit said.

He said former S-21 staffers will testify that Duch himself taught them how to torture prisoners to extract confessions.

Prosecutors also showed the court cryptic margin notes Duch had written on detainee reports that advocated violence.

"Did not confess. Torture," Duch instructed on one report.

"Uncle Peng. Kill them all," he wrote on another.

Duch has also denied responsibility for some of the detention center's most gruesome activities. He claimed he had no knowledge of S-21 interrogators slowly draining the blood from prisoners' bodies as a means of execution. And he has never given a full account of what happened to the many children who were brought to S-21, Petit told the court.

In keeping with the defense's general strategy, Roux tried to spin such lapses as evidence of Duch's humanity. Like anyone, he said, Duch may have trouble "admitting certain things that are extremely painful."

But the fact that he is trying to face his past, and to acknowledge his crimes, shows he is "convinced that he still has a role to play in humanity," Roux asserted.

We will see if others agree. And if they can even consider accepting his apology.

* Pictured: Comrade Duch, shortly before his arrest. Photo by Stuart Isett.



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