Court hears Khmer Rouge testimony


An alleged Khmer Rouge torturer faced trial for crimes against humanity today, the first involving a senior Pol Pot cadre 30 years after the end of a regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths.

After years of delays and procedural wrangling, prosecutors for the joint UN-Cambodian tribunal will lay out their case against Duch, the former chief of the S-21 prison, where 14,000 "enemies" of the 1975-79 revolution were tortured and killed.

"I never thought that this day would come," said 64-year-old Svay Simon, one of hundreds of Khmer Rouge victims gathered at the specially built court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Duch's trial, which formally began with procedural hearings last month, marks a turning-point for the strife-torn country, where nearly every family lost someone during the Khmer Rouge era, one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

"The Cambodian people will finally see one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge leaders face trial. But many more need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes," said Brittis Edman, a Cambodia researcher for rights group Amnesty International.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, faces charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and homicide.

The silver-haired former school teacher is the first of five ageing senior cadres charged for their role in Pol Pot's "Year Zero" revolution to achieve an agrarian utopia.

He is expected to be a key witness in the future trials of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, the regime's ex-president Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, its foreign minister, and his wife.

The four others have denied knowledge of any atrocities by the Khmer Rouge during its rule, which began by driving everyone out of the cities with whatever they could carry.

There is no death penalty in Cambodia and the five could get life sentences if convicted by the panel of five Cambodian and international judges.

Advocates hope the tribunal - formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) - will serve as a model of professionalism for the country's erratic and politicized judiciary.

Critics say the tribunal's integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference, particularly on the issue of pursuing other Khmer Rouge suspects.

Pol Pot's death in 1998 was followed by a formal Khmer Rouge surrender which helped to usher in a decade of peace and stability, threatened now by the global economic downturn.