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Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Landmark Khmer Rouge trial starts

Footage from the trial in Phnom Penh

The long-awaited UN-backed trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia has opened at a Phnom Penh court, 30 years after the murderous regime fell.

Kaing Guek Eav - better known as Duch - was head of a notorious prison camp and is accused of presiding over the murder and torture of at least 15,000 inmates.

The trial is the result of a decade of painstaking and often ill-tempered negotiations, a BBC correspondent says.

People queued for hours to attend the hearing and see the ex-prison chief.

For the survivors, the opening day of the hearing offered the first opportunity to see a leading figure in the Khmer Rouge face justice.

WHO WERE THE KHMER ROUGE?
Maoist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979
Founded and led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998
Abolished religion, schools and currency in a bid to create agrarian utopia
Up to two million people thought to have died from starvation, overwork or execution

Presiding judge Nil Nonn said the first hearing represented "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".

But Francois Roux, for the defence, said it was "unacceptable" Duch had been held without trial for more than nine years.

The first days are mainly procedural, with witness testimony expected to be heard only during hearings next month, says the BBC's South East Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head.

'Satisfaction'

Duch was driven by bulletproof car from a detention centre to the specially-built court-room.

Kaing Guek Eav, also know as Duch (left) looks on during the first day of a UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 17 February 2009
Duch (left) ran a Khmer Rouge prison where almost all inmates were killed

He is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders who will face trial and is unusual in that he has expressed regret for what he did, and asked the forgiveness of his victims.

He wanted another chance to express his remorse, Mr Roux told reporters.

"Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims."

The courtroom was packed with people, many of them survivors of the Khmer Rouge or relatives of victims of the regime.

"It was really amazing to see victims of Duch sitting there in front of him in a courtroom confronting their perpetrator of 30 years ago," said Theary Seng, the director of the Centre for Social Development in Phnom Penh.

Her parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and she spent five months in prison as a child.

"I'm certain there was satisfaction and I'm certain there was a large degree of empowerment," she told the BBC.

'Killing fields'

Duch, a former teacher, was commander of the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre, also known as S-21, in the capital Phnom Penh for four years after the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975.

He is accused of personally overseeing the systematic torture of more than 15,000 prisoners.

Those who survived the ordeal were sent for execution in the so-called "killing fields".

KHMER ROUGE YET TO FACE TRIAL
Khieu Samphan: former president
Ieng Sary: foreign minister
Ieng Thirith: minister for social affairs (and wife of Iengy Sary)
Nuon Chea: chief ideologue

Many of the inmates were loyal party members who were caught up in the frenzy of paranoid killing that accompanied the Khmer Rouge's final months in power, our correspondent says.

Duch, 66, has been in detention since 1999, two years after he was discovered by a British photographer.

A born-again Christian, he is said to have co-operated with investigating judges - and is expected to reveal important information about the decisions made by the organisation's leadership.

His information could help in the trials set for later this year of four other defendants, analysts say.

They include the surviving top leaders Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan, who are all elderly and in poor health.

All four have denied any knowledge of the atrocities that took place under their rule.

If preparations for their trials get bogged down, as seems likely, Duch may be the only man ever held to account for the Khmer Rouge atrocities, our correspondent adds.

Drawn-out negotiations

But the man most wanted for crimes against humanity in Cambodia will never be brought to justice.

Tourist at Choeung Ek, one of the Khmer Rouge-era killing fields, now a memorial site

Pol Pot, the founder and leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in a camp along the border with Thailand in 1998, the same year his few remaining guerrillas agreed to finally abandon their fight.

As many as two million people are thought to have died from starvation, overwork and execution as the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities to send people to work on collective farms during its four years in power.

Cambodia originally asked the United Nations and international community to help set up a tribunal into the genocide more than a decade ago.

A joint tribunal was finally set up in 2006 following long drawn-out negotiations between the Phnom Penh government and the UN.

Bail hearings, appeals and pre-trial procedures have contributed to further delays.


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