World and Nation

First Khmer Rouge Trial Opens a Torture House Door

Testimony opened Monday at the first trial of a Khmer Rouge official, with a detailed description of the internal workings and methods of interrogation in the regime’s central torture house.

In statements included in a long indictment read by court officials, the defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, admitted ordering and taking part in systematic torture that sometimes continued for days.

In his statements, made during pretrial investigations, he said he was working on orders from the top Khmer Rouge leadership, an assertion that appeared to implicate four other defendants who are awaiting trial.

Thirty years after the regime was deposed, Duch is the first person to take the stand and answer for one of the most horrific episodes of mass killing in the past century, in which 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from 1975 to 1979 of starvation, overwork, disease or execution.

The trial has opened, with the backing of the United Nations, amid controversy over allegations of corruption and political influence by the government, which critics contend has tried to limit the scope of the indictments.

Duch, 66, the former commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and murder in the deaths of at least 14,000 people; almost all were tortured before they were executed. Only a handful of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng survived.

Some inmates were also subjected to medical experiments, including “live autopsies” and experimentation with homemade medications, according to Duch’s statements in the indictment.

Testimony on Monday involved the reading of a detailed description of the charges against Duch (pronounced DOIK). Statements from the prosecution and the defense should follow, and then accounts from witnesses and the defendant. The trial is expected to last about four months.

Through his French lawyer, FranÁois Roux, Duch has admitted his role and apologized to the victims, but he was quoted Monday as saying that he feared for his life if he did not follow orders.

Neatly dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, Duch stood at the start of the proceedings to give his name and a string of aliases, and to confirm that he understood the charges.

A former schoolteacher, Duch disappeared after the Khmer Rouge were routed by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. He was found in 1999 by a British journalist, living quietly in a small Cambodian town, where he said he had converted to Christianity. He was arrested shortly afterward.

According to the charges read Monday, the prisoners brought to Tuol Sleng were presumed guilty. Even if they had been mistakenly arrested, they were killed to preserve the secrecy of the prison, the indictment said.

Much of the prison’s work involved internal purges that consumed the Khmer Rouge regime, according to the indictment. Those who were arrested were not told the charges against them, but were forced to confess to crimes in coerced statements often hundreds of pages long.