A skull of a prisoner at Phnom Penh's Toul Sleng - once run by war crimes suspect Duch - is shown in a case as Buddhist monks perform a traditional pre-Khmer New Year blessing at the former prison on Wednesday.
Francois Bizot, one of the few people to survive incarceration by prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, took the stand Wednesday, becoming the first witness to testify at Cambodia's war crimes tribunal.
"Duch was a man who looked much like many friends of mine, a Marxist who was prepared to surrender his life for the revolution," Bizot said, describing the 66-year-old former commandant, better known by his revolutionary name Duch.
In an intensely anticipated hearing, the French anthropologist drew the court's attention to the moral dilemma he faced when trying to understand the man who had presided over his three-month imprisonment at M-13, a secret prison on the outskirts of Kampong Speu that Duch ran from 1971-75.
"I had expected to encounter a monster ... but I realised then things were much more tragic, more frightening," Bizot told the court.
Bizot was arrested in September 1971 while working as a researcher in Cambodia. He was accused of being a CIA spy, then blindfolded and sent to M-13, which he described Wednesday as "the type of camp from which you would never return".
He was shackled to an iron bar with other inmates, but allowed certain freedoms such as daily baths and a farewell party upon his release.
Bizot was freed along with his two assistants after Duch requested his release from his superiors. They were three of only 10 people reported to have survived the prison.
"When I arrived there, I was welcomed by one of the chiefs, who proved to be cynical and aggressive and who, therefore, gave the necessary orders so that one of my heels be put into some kind of shackle at the end of a metal bar ... [Duch] took the decision to carry out interrogation himself... and said to me that there were counts against me that were very serious and I had to write down a statement of innocence. I thought these would be the last words I would write in my life," he said.
"Today it is Duch who is accused, and it is [he] who is, so to speak, all tied up," he said.
Although Bizot admitted Wednesday that he was "never tortured or witnessed torture" himself, he told the court that he was led to believe such acts occurred at M-13 though interactions with Duch and sightings of torture equipment.
"Duch, quite unhesitating, [told me] that sometimes he did the hitting, that he would hit the prisoners because they would lie and their testimonies would come up with contradictions. He said that he hated lying - lying was abhorrent to him," he said.
Describing Duch as a "cynical ... polite ... tireless worker who rarely spoke", Bizot said the prison chief interviewed him on a nightly basis to determine his true background.
It was in these meetings that Bizot came to understand Duch's hardened dedication as a young revolutionary, regardless of what this required of him.
"He said that his job was not to his liking, but it was the responsibility entrusted on him," Bizot said.
"He had done his job in a frightening way, but a very rigorous way."
Duch was later quizzed on Bizot's testimony, and excerpts from the Frenchman's novel The Gate, which recounted his experiences.
However, Duch claimed he had not yet read the book and would need more time to consider the questions.
Events occurring under Duch's command of M-13 are outside the court's jurisdiction, but are expected to form a picture of S-21 and Duch's personality.