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Cambodia confronts its past as Khmer Rouge killer awaits court's verdict

More than 30 years after Pol Pot's brutal regime fell, the first of its senior figures will learn his fate tomorrow. Andrew Buncombe reports from Phnom Penh

It has been more than 30 years since Khmer Rouge torturers pulled out Chum Mey's toenails and attached electrodes to his head. Barely a day has passed without him thinking of the dark, awful days he spent inside a notorious jail in which thousands of people were interrogated, beaten and then dispatched for execution.

Often he wonders why he survived when so many died. "For all these years, the suffering and pain of the victims and myself has rung in my ears," he told The Independent on Sunday.

But Mr Mey is poised to take what he believes will be a vital step towards healing. Tomorrow, a court in Cambodia will deliver its verdict on the man who ran Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng jail, the extraordinary establishment from which some 16,000 people were sent to be bludgeoned to death at killing fields on the edge of the city. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The 67-year-old ex-teacher, the first of five former Khmer Rouge officials to be tried, will almost certainly receive a lengthy sentence.

Experts who have followed the process say the effort to bring Duch and his associates to trial has been a crucial, if difficult, undertaking. It has sent a message, they say, that such appalling offences will not go unpunished and is proof that justice, however slow, will eventually make an appointment with the guilty. "For Cambodia, it's going to have a positive impact regardless of what the sentence is," said David Chandler, a leading expert on Cambodian history who has served as an adviser to the UN-backed tribunal. "Duch is the first important person to be tried in a court of law. It ends the impunity."

The Khmer Rouge – who swept to power in 1975 when their black-clad fighters ousted US-backed government forces from Phnom Penh – killed up to 1.7 million people through starvation, sickness or execution. In all, their Maoist-inspired revolution, designed to transform Cambodia into a classless, rural-based society, reduced the country's population by a quarter.

Given that so many people here were either personally affected by the Khmer Rouge or knew people who were, the trial of Duch has attracted widespread interest. The proceedings at a specially built court complex on the edge of capital have been broadcast live on several television channels. "We have also had more than 30,000 visitors out here," said Reach Sambath, a senior spokesmen for the so-called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC). "People have been very interested in what is happening."

Of the thousands who were sent to Tuol Sleng, only a dozen survived, and today there are just seven of them still alive. It is for this small group that the conclusion of the trial, which has seen Duch both beg for forgiveness and show contempt towards the dead, means the most. Each has dealt with their incarceration and survival in a different way. One of them, Van Nath, an artist who last year wept when he gave evidence to the hearing and described how he and others had scratched in the dirt to find insects to eat, has ever since produced only harsh, dramatic images that recall scenes he witnessed at the prison or was told about.

For the 79-year-old Mr Mey, a warm, friendly man who survived two years inside Tuol Sleng only for his wife and child to be murdered, it has meant visiting on an almost daily basis the torture camp-turned-museum that now stands as a deeply disturbing reminder of the darkness of which humans are capable.

Walking around the former classrooms, on the walls of which hang thousands of black-and-white images of those who were murdered, Mr Mey will explain to visitors how and where things happened. He will point out the narrow cell in which he was chained to the floor, the thick manacles he and the other inmates were forced to wear and, finally, the image of half a dozen shockingly emaciated men who were discovered by Vietnamese troops who invaded the city and uncovered the jail. The balding, slightly built man on the left is him.

Yesterday, on an afternoon filled with black thunderclouds and burning sunshine, Mr Mey was again back at the prison, preparing to be filmed by yet another television crew. "I feel a mixture of happiness and worry," he explained. "I'm happy because it's his fate, but I'm also worried about the decision made by the ECCC. I've been waiting for a just verdict. If the ECCC ever let him go free, I and other victims would never be happy. We want him imprisoned for life."

Though many questioned the wisdom of the trial, he said he believed the process had already had a big impact. "It's what the other victims and I have been fighting for. This first trial will set the ECCC as a model for Cambodia and the whole world," he said. "I can never forget my past, but I know we'll have to move on, but with the just trial of Duch. His verdict will determine the future national reconciliation in Cambodia. Without it, other Cambodians and I cannot reconcile with the past. I'll be present at the court on Monday to see his fateful day."

The battle to bring to trial Duch and four other Khmer Rouge officials – the regime's second-in-command, Nuon Chea; the former foreign minister Ieng Sary; the former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith; and the ex-head of state Khieu Samphan – has been very difficult. Duch was arrested in 1999 when he was discovered by an Irish-born photojournalist, Nic Dunlop, working for a Western aid group in the north of Cambodia.

Several countries have little to gain from unpacking the complex story of the Khmer Rouge's ascent to power. Many historians believe a massive US bombing campaign in Cambodia was an important brutalising factor. China was a major supporter of the regime during its four years of deadly rule, and Britain and the US opted to support the rebels after they were ousted by the Communist Vietnamese forces.

Perhaps more importantly, the Cambodian authorities, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, have only grudgingly supported the $150m process. They have ensured that only the five defendants in custody are tried. Other senior figures within the country's establishment were also Khmer Rouge, and the government has argued that if more people were tried it would lead to social unrest.

In a nation where almost everyone over the age of 45 was a participant, a bystander or a victim in Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's brutal revolution, such a view finds support. At the same time, many Cambodians feel the trial and the attention it has drawn to the country's painful, recent history have been highly important. Remarkably, until only a year or so ago, schoolchildren in Cambodia were taught nothing about the Khmer Rouge years.

What now remains is for Duch to be sentenced. On several occasions during the trial, he expressed regret for his actions and asked for forgiveness. Once he revealed how the heads of babies and children were smashed against the trunks of trees to save bullets. "I am criminally responsible for killing babies, young children and teenagers," he declared.

Yet in the final days of the trial last November, Duch claimed he should be set free. Earlier this month, in another twist, he sacked his French lawyer in a move that many observers believed was designed to confuse the situation.

In truth, it will have made little difference. Given the weight of evidence and testimony against him, it would be all but impossible for the court's panel of judges not to find him guilty and sentence him for the deeds of his past. For Mr Mey and Cambodia's other survivors, what matters now is the future.

The trials ahead

Khieu Samphan A former head of state, Khieu Samphan was arrested following a stroke in 2007 and, along with the others, faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Khieu Samphan insists that he was not directly responsible for deaths under the regime.

Ieng Sary Former foreign minister Ieng Sary is Pol Pot's brother-in-law and studied with him in Paris. Though he was officially pardoned by the King of Cambodia in 1996, he faces trial for his part in co-ordinating forced labour and unlawful killings.

Ieng Thirith Dubbed the Khmer Rouge First Lady, was arrested with her husband Ieng Sary in 2007. The former social affairs minister is accused of planning and ordering purges as well as the murder of staff in the social affairs ministry.

Nuon Chea Duch claims "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea was "the principal man for the killings" under the regime. Lengthy interviews with him feature in a recent documentary about the Khmer Rouge, though how these affect the trial remains to be seen.

The killing fields

1955 Prince Norodom Sihanouk becomes prime minister and is elected head of state in 1960. In 1963 left-wing opponents of Sihanouk (including Saloth Sar, who changed his name to Pol Pot) flee Phnom Penh and establish the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge)

1969 US begins secret bombings of Vietnamese communist base camps in Cambodia

1970 Sihanouk is deposed in a coup led by General Lon Nol. Sihanouk forms a United Front with the Khmer Rouge

1972 War escalates between Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot

1973 US bombing raids are terminated. More than a million people are killed, wounded or maimed. The US drops 2,756,941 tons of bombs, more than all the bombs dropped by the Allies during the Second World War

1975 Lon Nol flees to Hawaii. On 17 April the Khmer Rouge establish the government of Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Entire populations of major cities are forced into hard labour in the countryside. For the next three years the Cambodian genocide, which became known as the Killing Fields, starts. Sihanouk returns to Phnom Penh as head of state

1976 Sihanouk resigns and remains virtually under house arrest. Pol Pot becomes prime minister

1977 Heavy fighting on the Kampuchea-Vietnam border begins when DK troops launch cross-border raids

1978 Khmer Rouge officers stage an unsuccessful uprising against the Pol Pot regime, then flee to Vietnam. Vietnam invades Kampuchea on Christmas Day

1979 Phnom Penh is taken by the Vietnamese, who install Heng Samrin as president of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge are driven towards the Thai border. Conflict and famine cause Cambodians to flee to Thailand

The toll of the Killing Fields

1.7million estimated total of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation

200,000 were believed executed