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Page last updated at 12:55 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 13:55 UK

Court hears Khmer Rouge testimony

Duch ( in the white shirt) with defence lawyers at the trial (30/03/09)
Prosecutors have been outlining the charges against Duch (centre)

Court officials have finally started to outline the case against a former Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia.

After months of pre-trial hearings, the former prison chief known as Comrade Duch listened while a court official read out the charges against him.

He is accused of crimes against humanity, torture and premeditated murder for his alleged role in the deaths of more than 10,000 people.

The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people in less than four years.

Forgiveness?

The UN-backed trial first opened in Phnom Penh last month, but this is the first day that proceedings have properly got under way.

Duch, whose really name is Kaing Guek Eav, is the first Khmer Rouge leader to face the tribunal - with four more of the regime's senior figures in custody and awaiting trial.

He is the only one who has admitted his part in the atrocities and asked for forgiveness from his victims. Duch cuts an unassuming figure these days, according to the BBC correspondent at the tribunal, Guy De Launey.

WHO WERE THE KHMER ROUGE?
A Buddhist monk in Udonmg, file image
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

Now a slight grey-haired 66-year-old, the former prison warder politely confirmed his name and family details at the start of the court session, then asked for permission to sit down.

But the charges against him are grave, and when the prosecutors read out the long indictment against him, it was full of gruesome details.

It described medieval methods of torture and execution allegedly carried out by Duch when he was in charge of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

"Several witnesses said that prisoners were killed using steel clubs, cart axles, and water pipes to hit the base of their necks," the indictment said.

Duch's job was to extract confessions from prisoners of counter-revolutionary activity, but "every prisoner who arrived at S-21 [Tuol Sleng] was destined for execution", the document said.

Duch has previously told investigators he had not wanted to take charge of the prison, but feared for his own life if he did not follow orders.

He said he knew that inmates were being tortured but did not participate himself.

Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux, said last month that his client wished to ask forgiveness.

"He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims," Mr Roux said.

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Long wait

The hearings come after a decade of painstaking negotiations between politicians, judges, lawyers and Cambodians.

The trial is being keenly followed, and people started queuing at dawn to make sure they could get a seat in the courtroom.

"I have been waiting for this for so long. I am happy that Duch is standing trial so that we will get justice," said Om Chantha, whose husband died during the regime.

"I never thought I would have a chance to see Duch and sit in on this trial," added Svay Simon, who lost 10 relatives and whose limb was blown off by a Khmer Rouge bomb.

The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, ousting a US-backed government shortly after the US pulled out of neighbouring Vietnam.

Driven on by Maoist principles, they attempted to create a peasant society by systematically emptying the cities and forcing the population to work in the fields.

By the time the Vietnamese army invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the regime had executed or starved and overworked to death up to two million Cambodians.



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