A former Khmer Rouge prison chief was charged yesterday with crimes against humanity and placed in detention by Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal in the first legal action against regime leaders.
"The co-investigating judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have charged Kang Kek Ieu, alias Duch, for crimes against humanity and have placed him in provisional detention," tribunal judges said in a statement.
Duch, one of five former leaders widely believed to be under investigation, ran the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a former high school that was converted into a torture center.
Some 16,000 men, women and children were brutalized there before being taken to the outskirts of the capital and executed.
Up to 2 million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed, under the Khmer Rouge's 1975 to 1979 communist regime.
The Khmer Rouge also abolished religion, schools and currency, exiling millions to vast collective farms in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
These crimes were part of a "common criminal plan constituting a systematic and unlawful denial of basic rights," prosecutors said earlier last month after submitting their cases for investigation.
The names of all those under investigation have not been made public.
However, prosecutors are reportedly also seeking charges of genocide and other crimes against former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, as well as regime leader Pol Pot's deputy Nuon Chea and foreign minister Ieng Sary.
But Duch's lawyer, Kar Savuth, said Duch -- who taught mathematics before becoming a communist revolutionary in the late 1960s -- was not guilty of any crimes and was only following "verbal orders from the top."
"He had no rights to arrest or kill anyone," Kar Savuth said.
Tuol Sleng, in the center of Phnom Penh, has been turned into a genocide museum and is a popular tourist attraction.
Hundreds of mug shots of its former inmates are on display, along with torture devices and paintings graphically depicting the abuses.
After years of often acrimonious talks, the UN and Cambodia agreed in 2003 to a complex joint tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders.
The three-year, US$56.3 million process has been underway for a year, with prosecutors compiling cases against suspects.