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Khmer Rouge Torture Chief Apologizes During Trial

The former commander of S21 - the Khmer Rouge's main torture facility in Phnom Penh - has told a U.N.-backed tribunal that he takes responsibility for the crimes committed there.

A slightly built former math teacher, Kaing Guek Eav was called to the stand to defend himself against accusations made by the prosecution during opening statements delivered Monday.

The joint U.N.-Cambodian court is seeking to establish responsibility for the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians who died from overwork, starvation or execution under the Khmer Rouge's brutal 1975-1979 rule.

Addressing the court, the man known as Duch apologized directly to his victims.

As the commander of S21 prison - a former school turned torture center in downtown Phnom Penh - Duch is accused of presiding over the torture and deaths of at least 12,380 people, although the actual figure is probably much higher.

Many of the victims at S21 were former members of the Khmer Rouge and their families, accused by an increasingly paranoid regime of working for the CIA, the KGB or the Vietnamese.

The trial is being viewed with particular interest because Duch is the only one of the five former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial who readily admits his guilt. A born-again Christian he has vowed to tell all in court. Because the Khmer Rouge was an incredibly secretive organization, most Cambodians still know little about it.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia has been compiling evidence on the Khmer Rouge for years and its director, Youk Channg, says most victims are interested in what he can reveal about the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge.

"He says he admits and takes responsibility, but I do not think that is the point," Youk said. "The point that he has to explain, and should be asked more in depth, is how he tortured prisoners, how he came to this kind of method of suffering for the prisoners, how he decided who should stay and who should leave [S21] and who should be tortured. And that is important because, you know, we all know Toul Sleng, we all know S21, there is no doubt about that."

Youk Channg says many while many welcome Duch's apology, some doubt his sincerity.

"I think that Duch can fool all of us because he is overshadowed by the Khmer culture - the gentleness, the greetings, the smiling, you know," he said. "But I think that Duch is a very calculating man, he is a skillful murderer, he is quiet evil, he is an angry man. He can blame all [on] the circumstances [he was in] but he must be responsible for what he did."

On a recent pre-trial evidence gathering trip to S21 prison, Youk Channg says Duch tried to intimidate his former subordinates.

"He still acts arrogantly to his former subordinates," Youk said. "You know I was told by a former [S21] prison guard who was brought to see Duch, and he came to me and he said, 'You know, he is still arrogant'. He used language that others would not understand, but he intimidated them, right in front of the international judges and lawyers, and he did that, you know, to his own former subordinates."

Duch has been formally charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide. If convicted he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison. His trial is expected to take about 12 weeks to complete.