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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Khmer Rouge prison chief anxious as trial ends

Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, the first high-ranking member of Cambodia's ousted regime to be tried for war crimes, is nervous as he prepares to take the stand for a final time at a U.N.-backed tribunal, his lawyer said Sunday.

Closing arguments are expected to start Monday with both sides wrapping up their cases by the end of the week. Kaing Guek Eav, who pleaded guilty, is expected to testify as soon as Wednesday and to be sentenced early next year.

The tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died from execution, overwork, disease and malnutrition as a result of the ultra-communist group's policies while in power from 1975-79.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch (pronounced DOIK), commanded S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where up to 16,000 people were tortured and then taken away to be killed. He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture. He faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Cambodia has no death penalty.
By JERRY HARMER Associated Press

Duch is the only accused Khmer Rouge leader to acknowledge responsibility for his actions. Four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody awaiting trial.

"He has said from the start 'I want to explain in front of the judges, in front of public opinion.' This will be the last moment when he can explain," said Francois Roux, Duch's lawyer. "So he's worried about what he's going to say and how he's going to say it."

Roux described his client as "nervous and anxious" about taking the stand for one last time and refused to detail what Duch would say. But he said that his client was hopeful the judges would take into consideration the fact he has admitted his guilt and apologized to his victims.

In earlier testimony, Duch accepted responsibility for his role in overseeing the prison and asked for forgiveness from victims' families. He also told the court that he was ready to accept heavy punishment for his actions.

He has denied personally killing or torturing the S-21 prisoners, and said he felt compelled by fear for his own life to follow the orders of senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

"At this moment it's very important to give credit to Duch for his guilty plea. Duch has recognized his responsibility," Roux said. "He has asked forgiveness from his victims."

The tribunal, which opened March 30, has featured testimony from nine expert witnesses, 17 witnesses on facts and seven character witnesses and 22 "civil parties" representing victims.

More than 23,000 people have observed the trial from the public gallery in the courtroom, tribunal officials said.

Roux said the fact that Duch cooperated with the court doesn't "erase" his crimes but it has gone a long ways to further the understanding of what happened.

"We have moved forward the understanding, the recollection," he said. "We have all moved forward in our understanding of the Cambodian tragedy."

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