PHNOM PENH: The Khmer Rouge's executioner-in-chief, the prison boss alleged to be responsible for the torture and murder of more than 12,000 people, has made a final plea before an international court.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, asked that he be allowed to meet his victims' families to apologise in person.
He told the Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh yesterday he took full responsibility for the torture and murders that occurred at his prison.
''I am solely and individually responsible for the loss of at least 12,380 lives. These people before their deaths have endured great and prolonged suffering and countless indignities … I still and forever wish most respectful and humble apologies to the dead souls.
''As for the families, I [am] asking you to kindly leave your door open for me to make my apologies.
''May I meet with you to allow me to share your intense and enduring sorrow any time in order to express my most excruciating remorse.''
Dressed in a carefully ironed blue shirt, the bespectacled former high-school mathematics teacher spoke calmly and coldly, his evidence littered with casual references to people being ''smashed'' and ''the wishes of the party''.
As head of Tuol Sleng prison, a converted high school also known as S-21, Duch said his role was to ''smash'' people presumed to be disloyal to the Khmer Rouge movement.
Every prisoner was assumed guilty, Duch said, in effect ''already dead''.
They were to be tortured for false confessions - usually that they were traitors working for the CIA or KGB - through electric shocks, beatings and whippings, waterboarding, having fingers cut off or toenails pulled out.
They were then executed, most driven to nearby Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields, where they were bludgeoned to death with ox-cart axles and buried in mass graves.
''Those people were the innocent, the clean, the very honest,'' Duch said yesterday.
''I don't believe they had committed any wrongdoing, as they were accused.''
Speaking from a handwritten speech of more than 10 pages, Duch said he found himself unwittingly caught up in a revolution he came to despise, and was forced to do his job at Tuol Sleng against his wishes, out of fear he would be killed if he refused.
''I could not withdraw from it … I am very terrified.''
But the apology, broadcast live on national TV, left many Cambodians cold.
Norng Charnpal, one of only a dozen people who left Tuol Sleng alive, told the Herald he did not want Duch to apologise. ''I don't want to hear this. It is not real and it is not enough for my family.''
Earlier, prosecutors asked that Duch be imprisoned for 40 years for his crimes, in effect a life sentence for the 65-year-old. He will be sentenced next year.
The lead prosecutor, Australian William Smith, rejected Duch's claim he was acting only out of fear for his life, telling the court: ''The accused was neither a prisoner, nor a hostage, nor a victim.
''He was an idealist, a revolutionary, a crusader … prepared to torture and kill willingly for the good of the revolution.''
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for four years from 1975. The regime killed - through starvation, overwork, disease and murder - an estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of the country's population.
Comrade Duch is the first Khmer Rouge cadre to face trial, though four higher-ranked leaders - including the regime's former second-in-command, Nuon Chea - are in jail awaiting trial.
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