PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodia's UN-backed genocide tribunal this week resumes the trial of the Khmer Rouge's former prison chief, who is expected to admit his role in the "Killing Fields" horrors three decades ago.
When proceedings began last month, lawyers for Kaing Guek Eav -- better known as Duch -- said he would use the court to publicly ask forgiveness for his role in the 1975 to 1979 regime which killed up to two million people.
"It is an enormously important moment in the history of Cambodia," said tribunal spokeswoman Helen Jarvis. "People have been waiting for a long time, and the process will unfold over the next couple of months."
Former maths teacher Duch, 66, is one of five Khmer Rouge leaders who have been detained by the court and judges on Monday will read his charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and pre-meditated murder.
The court plans to invite Duch to personally address allegations he oversaw the torture and extermination of more than 15,000 men, women and children when he headed Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21.
"It's unique that we will spend months hearing evidence and testing it at a trial for charges that he has admitted to," said Richard Rogers, head of the Khmer Rouge tribunal's defence office.
Duch, a born-again Christian, has consistently admitted personal responsibility at Tuol Sleng since he was arrested in 1999, although maintains he did not personally torture or murder prisoners.
Most welcome the idea that Duch will at least partially confess in the court, which is seen as the last hope to deal with Khmer Rouge crimes.
"A confession is a good thing for Duch to do. If Duch pleads guilty, I will be eased in my heart," said Vann Nath, who is one of the handful who survived Tuol Sleng because his skills as an artist were deemed useful for the regime.
"We will get a kind of justice -- not compensation -- but justice that can heal our mind when the court convicts Duch and he receives the punishment," Vann Nath added.
Duch faces a maximum term of life in prison by the tribunal, which does not have the power to impose the death penalty.
The defence appears to hope that testimony by Duch will earn him a reduced prison sentence.
"The question is: What is the appropriate punishment for a man who's confessed to terrible crimes, assisted the process of justice and asked for forgiveness?" Rogers said.
The Khmer Rouge, led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, emptied Cambodia's cities during its time in power, exiling millions to vast collective farms in a bid to take society back to "Year Zero" and forge a Marxist utopia.
Pol Pot died in 1998.
But the Khmer Rouge court, established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between the government and UN, has faced controversy over allegations of corruption and political interference.
Amid claims that Cambodian staff paid kickbacks for their jobs, donors have shied from funding parts of the court.
It was only able to pay salaries for Cambodian staff this month after Japan provided an emergency 200,000-dollar donation.
Japan remains the tribunal's biggest donor, pledging 21 million dollars early this year after the tribunal's operating costs ballooned from the original budget of 56.3 million dollars over three years.
The tribunal has been further dogged by allegations of interference by Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration after the Cambodian co-prosecutor opposed pursuing more suspects on the grounds that it could destabilise the country.
The other Khmer Rouge members awaiting trial are "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was the minister of social affairs.
Many here hope the tribunal will help Cambodians understand how the Khmer Rouge came to kill its own people.
"We -- the victims -- need to understand (Duch's) brutality and how he treated and executed the prisoners like animals," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
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