S-21 boss apologises to victims and survivors in a historic moment at his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Four-year-old Aliza last month at Toul Sleng, where her grandfather was one of the last prisoners to be killed.
SAYING he was filled with "regret and heartfelt sorrow", former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav became the first former Khmer Rouge figure to publicly admit to court his role in atrocities committed more than three decades ago by the regime and to apologise to his victims as he faced Cambodia's war crimes tribunal Tuesday.
Speaking on the second day of his trial, the Khmer Rouge's top interrogator, who is better known by his revolutionary name Duch, told a packed courtroom - including victims of the regime and relatives of those who disappeared into the killing machine he oversaw - that he alone was responsible for the crimes committed under the 66-year-old former maths teacher's supervision.
"I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of people there," Duch said.
"May I be permitted to apologise to the survivors of the regime and the family members of the victims of S-21," he said. "I know that my crimes, in particular those towards women and children, cannot be tolerated," he said.
His 29-minute apology followed a harrowing recital of the abuses committed under his command at Tuol Sleng, the regime's most notorious torture centre.
"Victims were beaten with rattan sticks and whips, electrocuted, had toenails and fingernails pulled out, were suffocated with plastic bags forcibly tied over their heads and were stripped naked and had their genitals electrocuted," foreign Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said.
Cambodian Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang told the court the conditions at S-21 were so dire that desperate detainees tried to commit suicide by "stabbing themselves with pencils, cutting themselves with shards of glass, burning themselves with lanterns and throwing themselves off the upper levels of the prison."
According to the co-prosecutors, S-21 inmates were not only tortured under Duch's direct orders, but at times "by his own hand", Petit said.
Showing documents penned by the prison chief himself, the prosecutors argued that he had even scouted out new "enemies" to imprison, in one case "eagerly asking [his commanders] for another victim".
Duch was described by prosecutors as a "dedicated revolutionary", who "knew better than anyone else at that time just what was
befalling the Cambodian population".
[Duch] didn't seem ... really that upset
"The contention that he relinquished [his] responsibility is simply not believable ... he was committed, to the very end, to the success of S-21," Petit added.
Using video and graphic evidence, the prosecution detailed the backdrop against which the prison chief's alleged crimes occurred and the central role S21 played in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. "[Duch's] crimes were part of a widespread and systematic attack on the Cambodian population," Chea Leang said.
But Duch's defence lawyers argued that the regime's extreme paranoia - thousands of those who ended up in Tuol Sleng were themselves Khmer Rouge functionaries - required that an extreme sense of duty be upheld at all times.
"It is because of the terror that every link in the chain acted zealously," said Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux.
They claimed the court was using Duch as a scapegoat, saying far more senior Khmer Rouge leaders had yet to be tried in court.
"If any one of the senior leaders is not prosecuted, then I think its better not prosecuting anyone," said Duch's Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth.
Outside the court, victims and survivors said that Duch's apology was a necessary step forward, but it was only one step in a larger process of uncovering the truth behind one of the worst bloodlettings of the 20th century.
"I think it is good that Duch apologised, but I can never forgive him," said Va Kim, who lost members of his family to the regime and travelled from Prey Veng to hear the proceedings.
"As a victim of the regime, I will always have anger and can never forget what happened," he added.
Tuol Sleng survivor Bou Meng told reporters video footage shown by prosecutors, which included a corpse chained to a bed, reminded him of how he lost his wife at the prison.
"I cannot forgive Duch because of my wife's life. I want to beat him to death, but I respect the law and now is the time to use it," he said.
Nic Dunlop at the court
Duch became a born-again Christian during the 1990s and was arrested in 1999 after being tracked down to a remote western town by Irish photojournalist Nic Dunlop.
Dunlop, who was at the court and will address the judges as a witness in the trial, told the Post Tuesday's hearing had proven the court was prepared to deal with complex issues beyond the notions of good and evil.
"The big question is whether he is really sorry," he said. "People are naturally inclined to throw up defence mechanisms, and the defence mechanisms being put up by Duch - that he just took orders - are going to be stripped back as the trial goes along.
"What is most fascinating about Duch is that he tells the truth. It's only natural to minimise your responsibility, but I think he's beginning to realise what he's up against. He's going to have his authority questioned, which he never has had before."
Dunlop questioned whether Duch's apology was believable in the face of such immense crimes.
"Petit painted a fairly terrifying portrait of Duch, which makes you realise exactly what we're dealing with. You always want to believe in remorse ... but when things are on such a magnitude as these crimes, it is difficult to believe," Dunlop said. "If he burst into tears, or even shuddered, but he seemed to enjoy his day in court.... He didn't seem like a man who was really that upset."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP