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Cambodia's first Khmer Rouge trial opens

Three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the first trial of one of the regime's top leaders, Tuol Sleng prison chief Duch, gets under way

Pool photo

Former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav sits during the first day of his trial at Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday.

Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav stood before Cambodia's UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal today in the first of at least five expected trials of former regime leaders that are hoped to bring closure to one of the 20th century's darkest chapters.

Three decades after the ultra-communist movement was driven from power, Kaing Guek Eav - who is better known by his revolutionary name Duch - is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in Khmer Rouge atrocities.

The 66-year-old maths teacher ran a number of Khmer Rouge prisons, but is most infamous as commandant of the regime's main detention centre, Tuol Sleng, where as more than 16,000 men, women and children were brutally tortured before being executed in the nearby Choeung Ek killing fields.

Scores of Khmer Rouge victims were among the hundreds of people attending Tuesday's opening hearing, including Vann Nath, one of only a handful of people to survive Tuol Sleng.

"I have been waiting for this day for 30 years and now the day is here," he said outside the court.

"Last night, I did not sleep well because I was thinking a lot about my time at Tuol Sleng," added Vann Nath, who was spared execution because of artistic abilities, which his jailors put to use painting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

"I dreamed about going to the Khmer Rouge tribunal to join this hearing because it is very important for all people," he said.

Duch, a frail man wearing a blue shirt and eyeglasses, sat calmly behind his lawyers taking notes during Tuesday's largely procedural hearing, during which the structure of the upcoming trial proper would be determined.

Duch's lawyers said they intended to appeal his detention, saying that his imprisonment since 1999 - Duch was first held in military prison before being transferred to the tribunal's custody in July 2007 - is a violation of his basic human rights.

"The accused has been in pretrial detention for nine years, nine months and seven days until today," said Duch's international lawyer Francois Roux.

"This is unacceptable. A person cannot be kept in pretrial detention for more than three years under Cambodia law."  

International co-prosecutor Robert Petit told court judges that his team would again push for the concept of joint criminal enterprise to be applied to Duch's case, a legal move with potentially far-reaching implications on other cases before the tribunal.

Joint criminal enterprise, which was rejected by tribunal judges in December, opens the possibility of several defendants who had acted as a group facing a single charge.

The move has sent a shudder of alarm through the defence teams of the four other Khmer Rouge leaders in detention, who say that their clients could be unfairly prosecuted for crimes committed by Duch.

Duch, a born-again Christian, is the only suspect to have confessed to his crimes, and his testimony is expected to shed light on the regime's inner workings, including the acts committed by other senior members arrested by the tribunal.

Pol Pot's "Brother No 2" Nuon Chea, along with former foreign minister Ieng Sary, social minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan, are all in the tribunal's custody and likely to be tried as a group next year for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

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