03/30/2009, 00.00
CAMBODIA
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First hearing in trial of Khmer Rouge leader

Comrade Duch must answer to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is the only leader of the former regime to admit his responsibility, asking forgiveness from his victims. The trial will last several months, before the final verdict is given.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Proceedings began today in the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Comrade Duch," one of the five Khmer Rouge officers being tried by an international tribunal. He greeted the jury - made up of local and foreign judges - by clasping his hands together according to Cambodian tradition, and answered questions about his identity.

"I have already been notified of the charges against me," Duch stated. "Before I was arrested by the military court, I was a teacher." A clerk read the charges against him: war crimes, crimes against humanity, premeditated homicide, and torture.

The preliminary phase of the trial against the former commander of the S-21 prison in Tuol Seng was held last February 17, but it was only this morning - after the resolution of a few procedural questions, and the finalization of the list of witnesses - that arguments got underway in court.

Kaing Guek Eav, 66, has to answer to the death of more than 17,000 Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. He is the only leader of the Khmer Rouge to have admitted his responsibility for atrocities committed by the regime of Pol Pot, which in four years of brutal dictatorship exterminated almost two million people. He has asked his victims and their relatives for forgiveness.

The trial is expected to last a few months before reaching a final verdict. In 2010, the trial should begin against four other leading figures in the regime. They are: Khieu Samphan, 77, former head of state; Ieng Sary, 83, foreign minister; Ieng Thirith, 76, Sary's wife and social affairs minister; Nuon Chea, 82, the regime ideologue nicknamed "Brother number 2." Pol Pot, the bloody dictator known as "Brother number 1," died on April 15, 1998, without ever answering for the atrocities committed.

The trial against the Khmer Rouge leaders, and the international tribunal - backed by the United Nations - have been harshly criticized in the past. The country seems little disposed to carry out a profound historical review of the offenses connected to the Khmer Rouge dictatorship; the tribunal also faces accusations of corruption.

Some of the officials of the former regime, moreover, are high-ranking figures in the current government. These include Prime Minister Hun Sen; Comrade Duch's defense attorneys had asked for permission to question the prime minister in court, but their request was denied.

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