Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Khmer Rouge top interrogator apologises to regime's victim: witness

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — The Khmer Rouge's top interrogator returned Wednesday to the former school turned torture centre which he ran during Cambodia's 1970s genocide, apologising to his victims for blindly following orders, a witness said.

It was the first time in nearly 30 years that prison boss Duch, who oversaw the regime's Tuol Sleng prison with brutal efficiency, had set foot in what was one of the Khmer Rouge's most horrific killing machines.

The 65-year-old former maths teacher whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders facing UN-backed trials for atrocities committed under the communists' rule.

During a day-long session with officials from Cambodia's genocide tribunal, Duch walked through Tuol Sleng's dilapidated classrooms, re-enacting for them the daily routine that helped shape his alleged crimes, officials said.

"At the end he stood at the gate and clasped his hands in prayer, apologising to his victims for what he did and saying he had blindly followed his superior's orders to kill his own people," said one witness to the proceedings, which were conducted in private.

Only around a dozen of the estimated 16,000 men, women and children who were herded, blindfolded and bound, into Tuol Sleng during the regime's repeated purges are known to have lived through the ordeal.

Some of those survivors were on hand Wednesday to confront Duch directly for the first time since the Khmer Rouge regime fell, although tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath declined to comment on what was said.

"They talked to each other, but through the judges. The judges, lawyers and co-prosecutors asked questions and the witnesses and Duch answered," he told AFP.

"All the parties, including the charged person and the witnesses, have explained what happened here 30 years ago," he added.

He said that more meetings between Duch, survivors and former prison guards would be mediated Thursday by court officials as part of their ongoing investigation into the brutal upheaval that engulfed Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Tuol Sleng survivor Chum Mey, who according to witnesses was present Wednesday, told AFP earlier that he wanted to speak to Duch and convince him to acknowledge his crimes.

"The re-enactment is good, it means he (Duch) cannot say he did not do anything. I want him to show the judges ... where he gave the orders to bring people to be executed," Chum Mey said.

"I want him to recall the stories and answer everything," he added.

Duch, a born-again Christian who was seized by Cambodian authorities in 1999 and held at a military prison until his transfer to the tribunal in July, is charged with crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the regime's inner circle.

Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed by the Khmer Rouge, which dismantled modern Cambodian society in its effort to forge a radical agrarian utopia.

Cities were emptied and their populations exiled to vast collective farms, while schools were closed, religion banned and the educated classes targeted for extermination.

Duch, who has not denied his Tuol Sleng role, also took court officials Tuesday through the Choeung Ek killing fields, where as many as 20,000 people -- most of them prisoners at Tuol Sleng -- were murdered.

There he knelt and prayed several times, weeping for the regime's victims, Reach Sambath said, calling the visit a significant step towards justice.

Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal was established in July 2006 after nearly a decade of contentious negotiations between the government and United Nations over the shape of the court.

The first public trials are expected later this year.

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