By GRANT PECK / AP WRITER
PHNOM PENH — The man who ran the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison accepted responsibility Tuesday for torturing and executing thousands of inmates and expressed "heartfelt sorrow" for his crimes.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, told the UN-backed genocide tribunal that he wanted to apologize for the acts of the Khmer Rouge, whose genocidal rule of Cambodia from 1975-1979 left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.
"I recognize that I am responsible for the crimes committed," Duch told the tribunal, standing in the dock as he read from a prepared statement. "I would like to express my regretfulness and heartfelt sorrow."
Duch, now 66, commanded the group's main S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 men women and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths. 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.
He told the court he took responsibility "for crimes committed at S-21, especially torture and execution of people there."
While Duch's statements amount to a confession of guilt, defendants at the tribunal do not enter pleas. The tribunal says its primary goal is to determine the facts of what happened three decades ago during Khmer Rouge rule.
Co-prosecutor Chea Leang vowed to get justice for the 1.7 million victims of the country's radical communist regime.
"For 30 years, one-and-a-half million victims of the Khmer Rouge have been demanding justice for their suffering. For 30 years, the survivors of Democratic Kampuchea have been waiting for accountability. For 30 years, a generation of Cambodians have been struggling to get answers for their fate," Chea Leang said, using the regime's name for Cambodia.
"Justice will be done," she said. "History demands it."
The long-awaited trial against Duch began Monday with a full reading of the 45-page indictment. Executioners threw victims to their deaths, bludgeoned them and then slit their bellies, or had medics draw so much blood that their lives drained away, according to the indictment.
The tribunal is seeking to establish responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like conditions and execution under the Khmer Rouge, whose top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Duch's job was to extract confessions of counterrevolutionary activity, but "every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution," the indictment said. Prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses. Children were taken from their parents and dropped from the third floor of a prison building.
Chea Leang recalled the regime's infamous maxim regarding its enemies: "To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss."
The prosecutor displayed historic photographs and video records from the Khmer Rouge years, which began with executions of loyalists of the previous regime and the brutal forced evacuation to the countryside of the capital's 2 million residents.
Duch has been in detention since he was discovered in 1999 by British journalist Nic Dunlop in the Cambodian countryside, where he had been living under an assumed name.
Dunlop, who attended Tuesday's hearing, said it was "surreal" to see Duch in a courtroom as victims of the Khmer Rouge watched, but it was difficult to gauge local interest in the trial.
"Whether it resonates beyond these walls is the big question, and if it doesn't, we might as well be on another planet," he 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. That's what I think," he said.