Photo by: AFP
Former Tuol Sleng prison chief Duch, shown at Cambodia's war crimes court in this file photo.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal will open its first public trial on February 17, when Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav will face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with atrocities committed during the regime's 1975-79 rule, court officials said Monday.
Kaing Guek Eav, who is better known by his revolutionary name Duch, is accused of overseeing or taking part in the imprisonment and torture of as many as 16,000 men, women and children at Tuol Sleng, a former high school turned detention centre by the Khmer Rouge.
All but an estimated 14 of those inmates either died in Tuol Sleng or were executed at the Choeung Ek killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The 66-year-old former mathematics teacher is the only one of five regime leaders currently detained by the UN-backed court to admit his role in one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
For one of the few remaining Tuol Sleng survivors, the trial date is an enormous step towards Cambodia's reconciling with its brutal past after more than a decade of wrangling between the United Nations and government over the shape of the tribunal.
"We will know clearly the answer to why the Khmer Rouge killed their own people," said Vann Nath, whose artistic abilities kept him alive, as his captors put him to work painting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
"We will know who the right person is and who the criminal is. I am ready to join this hearing," he told the Post Monday.
The proceedings will begin with a largely procedural initial public hearing next month during which the prosecution and defence may raise legal challenges, potentially delaying the trial proper, scheduled for sometime in March, legal experts say.
"This is a positive step in the right direction ... [but] as with every initial hearing, there may be judicial challenges by the prosecutor or defence that may delay actual testimonies ... in that sense the trial proper might be delayed," Michelle Staggs Kelsall, deputy director of the Asian International Justice Initiative at monitoring group the East-West Centre told the Post Monday.
Duch has been held in detention since his arrest in 1999, but was only transferred to the tribunal's custody in 2007. The other detainees are Pol Pot's top lieutenant Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who as social affairs minister was the regime's highest-ranking female.
Tuol Sleng, known as security centre "S-21" under the regime, is now a genocide museum frequented by tourists in Phnom Penh.