The head of the Khmer Rouge's largest and most notorious torture center took the stand yesterday in the first public session of the long-delayed UN-backed tribunal probing the regime's reign of terror in the 1970s.
Relaxed and exceedingly polite, Kaing Guek Eav -- alias Duch -- was escorted by guards into a packed courtroom for a pretrial hearing to seek bail ahead of trials scheduled to begin next year.
Duch, 66, charged with crimes against humanity, took the witness stand dressed in a white polo shirt and stood up when asked to tell the court his name. He then brought his palms together in a sign of respect for the five-judge panel.
A presiding judge read aloud from Duch's case file: "Under his authority, countless abuses were committed, including mass murder, arbitrary detention and torture."
Hundreds of journalists, international observers and Cambodians crowded the tribunal's compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to witness the event.
"This is historic," said 58-year-old Sin Khor, whose husband and two brothers died during the Khmer Rouge reign.
"Thirty years have passed. But what happened then remains alive for me," she said.
Duch, who became a born-again Christian and aid worker in the 1990s, is one of five senior officials of the brutal regime to be taken in custody ahead of the genocide trial.
Duch was charged in July with crimes against humanity for his role as the head of the regime's infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21, in Phnom Penh. Up to 16,000 men, women and children were tortured there from 1975 to 1979 and then taken away to be executed. Only 14 inmates are believed to have survived.
He was arrested on May 10, 1999 and held in a Cambodian prison on war crime charges.
When asked the reason for his appeal, Duch rose and replied: "Because I had been detained for more than eight years without trial."
His defense attorney told the court that Duch should "have freedom immediately."
A ruling was not expected for several days.
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