Old and frail, Comrade Duch faces his victims 34 years on

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The Independent Online

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime today came face to face with one of its senior leaders as the "Killing Fields" court started hearing the case against him for crimes against humanity.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, who headed the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where around 14,000 people were killed, took the stand as Cambodia's genocide trial got under way 34 years after the brutal regime swept to power. Among those in the crowded courtroom in the capital Phnom Penh was Vann Nath, an artist and one of no more than a dozen people to have survived the prison. Mr Nath, 63, escaped being sent for execution because Duch spotted his skill and ordered him to produce drawings of |the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot.

Yesterday Mr Nath went to the court to witness a trial he once believed was impossible. "It is not only me wanting justice today. All Cambodian people have been waiting for 30 years now," he said.

"I look at Duch today and he seems like an old, very gentle man. It was much different 30 years ago."

Historians believe the communist regime was responsible for the deaths of up to 1.7 million people – then around a quarter of Cambodia's population – either through starvation, forced labour or execution. The effort to bring the senior leaders to trial has been a long and difficult process, not assisted by the fact that many former Khmer Rouge officials are senior figures in the current Cambodian establishment. For many years after the black-clad Khmer Rouge were forced out of Phnom Penh, a number of countries, including Britain, the US and China, continued to support them in a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government that had been installed in their place. Pol Pot died peacefully in his jungle hideout a decade ago.

"This first hearing represents the realisation of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodian and international law," the presiding judge Nil Nonn told the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Even now it remains unclear what position Comrade Duch and his lawyers will adopt during the trial.

Before he was arrested in 1999 after being discovered by a journalist, the born-again Christian admitted to his role in the killings of thousands of Cambodians. Unlike four other defendants – Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, Ieng Sary, the foreign minister, his wife Ieng Thirith, the minister for social affairs, and Nuon Chea, the prime minister – Duch has "admitted or acknowledged" to judges that many crimes were committed at his prison.

Yesterday his French lawyer Francois Roux told reporters: "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims and the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly." But Duch has also said that he was following orders. The tribunal, operated jointly by the UN and the Cambodian authorities, has said such claims will not constitute a defence.

Before the trial, which will start hearing evidence next month, Mr Nath, told The Independent, that he had witnessed "torture and screaming" at the prison. He added: "I saw Duch every day. He came to the place where I was every day. I respected him at the time, I did not know anything. I just knew he was the boss of the prison."