- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA (AP) - The man who ran the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison in Cambodia accepted responsibility Tuesday for torturing and executing thousands of inmates and expressed “heartfelt sorrow” for his crimes.

Kaing Guek Eav (pronounced “Gang Geck Ee-uu”), better known as Duch (“Doik”), told the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal he wanted to apologize for his actions under the Khmer Rouge, whose radical policies while in power from 1975 to 1979 left an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dead.

Duch, 66, who commanded the group’s main S-21 prison, accepted responsibility for the crimes committed there, “especially the torture and execution of people.” As many as 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been brutalized and killed at S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng.

“I would like to express my deep regret and my heartfelt sorrow,” Duch said.

He is charged with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide, and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Cambodia has no death penalty.



While Duch’s statements amount to a confession of guilt, tribunal defendants do not enter pleas. The tribunal says its primary goal is to determine the facts of the Khmer Rouge rule three decades ago and establish responsibility for the starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and executions under the regime, whose top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Duch is the least senior of only five surviving leaders of the regime scheduled to go before the court.

Critics allege that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought to limit the tribunal’s scope because other potential defendants are now loyal to him, and that to arrest them could be politically awkward.

Hun Sen expressed disdain for the court Tuesday during a speech in Cambodia’s southwest, saying that adding defendants could spark war and decrying Japan’s offer to donate $200,000 to the tribunal to help pay its salaries.

Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge official, said he would rather see the court run out of money. “Don’t talk to me about the budget shortfall,” he said. “I wish the court would have a budget shortfall as soon as possible.”

After the prosecution’s opening arguments, which described Duch as a key cog in the Khmer Rouge killing machine, Duch asked permission to make a personal statement.

He began by reading from a prepared statement and then put his papers down, removed his eyeglasses and gazed directly at the 500-seat audience in the courtroom, filled with Khmer Rouge survivors and other members of the public.

Duch said he tried to avoid being made commander of S-21, but once in the job he feared for his life and his family’s safety if he did not carry out his duty to extract confessions from supposed enemies of the regime.

Duch apologized to his victim’s families but said he was not asking to be pardoned for such “serious crimes that cannot be tolerated.”

“My current plea is that I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness,” he said, vowing to cooperate fully with the tribunal as “this is only the remedy that can help me to relieve all the sorrow and crimes I have committed.”

Duch’s Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, described his client as a scapegoat and a victim of selective justice while many others remain uncharged.

The long-awaited trial against Duch began Monday with a full reading of the 45-page indictment. Prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses; children were taken from their parents and dropped from third floor windows to their deaths, and some prisoners were bled to death, the indictment said.

On Tuesday morning, Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang vowed to get justice for the regime’s victims.

“For 30 years, one-and-a-half million victims of the Khmer Rouge have been demanding justice for their suffering,” Chea Leang said.

Most of Cambodia’s 14 million people were born after the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge, and many struggle daily to make a living in the poverty-stricken country.

Motorcycle taxi driver Vong Song, 52, said that he hears people talking about the tribunal, but he’s too busy working to pay for his three children’s education to worry about it.

“Let the court and the government do it. For me, the important thing is earning money to support my family,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.

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