A prominent member of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime on Tuesday for the first time publicly accepted responsibility and apologised for his role in a regime that killed one in every four of the country’s population.
Kaing Guek Eav ran Security Centre 21, where an estimated 17,000 men, women and children were “smashed” – the Khmer Rouge’s chilling euphemism for torturing and murdering victims -- as part of the regime’s attempt to create a perfect agrarian society.
“I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of the people there,” Mr Eav, who is better known by his nom de guerre Duch, told a packed court on Tuesday.
“May I be permitted to apologise to the survivors of the regime and families of the victims who had loved ones who died brutally at S-21. I would like you to forgive me,” said Duch, who converted to Christianity in the 1990s.
He is being tried by a hybrid Cambodian/international court and is the first prominent member of the Khmer Rouge to be called to account for the crimes committed between 1975 and 1979.
Some 1.7m people were murdered or died of overwork, disease or starvation in the three years, eight months and 20 days of the group’s rule, making the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea one of the bloodiest political experiments of the 20th century.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia has been set up to try the leaders or those deemed most responsible for the crimes of the regime of Pol Pot.
But it is still far from clear how many are likely to be put before the court, which has so far cost $60m.
Although Pol Pot himself died in 1998, four of his most senior comrades have been indicted and are expected to be tried next year. Court prosecutors and human rights groups are keen to expand that number.
However, Hun Sen, the current Cambodian prime minister and a former brigade commander under the Khmer Rouge, said on Tuesday that he did not want to see any more prosecutions.
“If as many as 20 Khmer Rouge are indicted to stand trial and war returns to Cambodia, who will be responsible for that?” he asked. “I would prefer to see this tribunal fail instead of seeing war return to my country.”
Advocates of the court such as Brad Adams, the Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, have dismissed similar warnings in the past and rights organisations have consistently complained that Cambodian leaders have tried to derail or limit the legal process out of national pride or self-interest.
“It is not a serious argument. The Khmer Rouge are dead, they are finished,” Mr Adams said in a recent interview. “The spectre that there could be somehow serious social conflict? Who is going to defend the Khmer Rouge? Is there a possibility of physical conflict over this now? No.”