Cambodian 'Killing Fields' Trial Opens; the Chief Accused Expresses Remorse

Cambodia's long-awaited genocide ("killing fields") trial began today.

Three decades after the deaths of millions of Cambodians, Guek Eav Kaing, a.k.a. Comrade Duch, is the first member of the communist ruling party Khmer Rouge to stand trial.

"This is the day we have waited for for 30 years," said Vann Nath, 63, one of a handful of survivors from the Tuol Sleng prison camp where, as deputy secretary, Duch is alleged to have presided over the torture and killings of at least 14,000 men, women and children.

He is officially charged with crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

"Duch's hands are full of blood; it's time for Duch to pay for his actions," said 39-year-old Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor of the so-called S-21 prison who is among the survivors expected to be allowed to join the trial process.

The haunting pictures of his victims still hang at Tuol Sleng prison, a former school that is now a tourist attraction for Phnom Penh visitors and a grisly memorial to the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror over Cambodia.

Nearly everyone lost loved ones in the violence, starvation and disease that followed the dictator Pol Pot's dream of building an agrarian utopia in Southeast Asia.

Those who opposed the regime were forced to confess to crimes, and were then shot or beaten to death in the "killing fields" outside the capital.

Duch's alleged involvement was no small contribution to the 1.7 million killed from 1975 to 1979.

Duch is full of remorse, according to his lawyers. "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims and the Cambodian people," Francois Roux told reporters at the specially built court outside the Cambodian capital. "He will do so publicly."

The neatly dressed communist revolutionary and former school teacher appeared frail but alert as lawyers discussed upcoming proceedings.

This week's hearings will lay the groundwork for a full-blown trial in March, when Duch and survivors are expected to testify.

Instead of an emotionally charged atmosphere, the spectators, some of them victims of the brutal regime, watched the court proceedings with quiet interest.

"Today is history and they hope the court will bring them justice," said Hong Kim Suon, a lawyer representing victims.

Although many Cambodians are happy that the trial has finally begun, the tribunal has been surrounded by controversy since its inception.

Accusations of corruption, incompetence, the amount of time passed and the spiraling cost ($56 million and climbing) of the United Nations sponsored court have made many Cambodians jaded about ever seeing justice.

Some claim that the money could have been better spent on schools or infrastructure and that, after 30 years, many would rather move on with their lives and not dwell on the past.

Others complain that the trial is being fueled by the self interest of certain non-governmental organizations, lawyers, and "professional victims," while others sat they are happy that Cambodia is finally seeking justice, not vengeance.

Many are relieved that there may at last be a chance at closure for victims and the families of victims, who were never allowed to grieve as their loved ones ended up in mass, unmarked graves.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the joint tribunal is known, has been called an "experiment in international justice," with domestic and foreign judges working side-by-side to try to ensure its independence.

But critics say its integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference over whom to prosecute.

"Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," said Sara Colm, Cambodian-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Four other Khmer Rouge cadres have been charged but a bid to go after more suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal's Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation.

Cabinet spokesman Siphan Phay denied any meddling and said the government wanted to complete the trials of the five people already facing charges before going after other suspects. "First things first," he told reporters. "We have never said we opposed anything, but let's finish these first."

Reuters contributed to the reporting of this story.