Cambodian ex-prison chief pleads for release

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2009 2:35 AM

The Khmer Rouge prison chief blamed for thousands of deaths at an infamous torture center asked Cambodia's genocide tribunal to release him Friday, citing the decade he already has served in jail and his cooperation with the panel.

The request by Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, stunned the courtroom and raised doubts about the sincerity of his earlier remarks to the panel accepting responsibility for his prison role, asking forgiveness from victims' families and expressing readiness to accept heavy punishment.

Judges declined to act on Duch's request before ending the trial's proceedings, following several days of closing arguments.

They did not announce a date for their ruling, which is expected early next year.

Duch (pronounced DOIK) commanded the notorious S-21 prison where those accused of disloyalty to the xenophobic communist regime were held. He oversaw the torture and execution of about 16,000 men, women and children during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.

Duch said Friday he had fully cooperated with the tribunal and had been detained since 1999.

"I want to be released from the chamber," Duch said.

Duch 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.

Duch, the only accused Khmer Rouge leader to acknowledge responsibility for his actions, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture, which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody awaiting trial.

Some 1.7 million Cambodians died of torture, execution, disease and starvation under the Khmer Rouge, whose Maoist ideologues led by Pol Pot emptied cities and forced virtually the entire population to work on farm collectives.

Human rights lawyer and activist Theary Seng said Duch's appeal for his release was inexplicable.

"What he did totally undermines his efforts up and until now in terms of remorse and it undermines his request for forgiveness which I thought was genuine," she said. "This is really disturbing."

Nic Dunlop, the photographer and author who initially found Duch in hiding 10 years ago, said the prison chief's last-minute plea was disappointing.

"It's sad," he said. "There were plenty of opportunities to say something important."

For much of the week, the two sides in Duch's trial have sparred over how much the former school teacher should be held accountable for the regime's brutality.

Prosecutors demanded a 40-year jail sentence, but the defense attorneys responded by suggesting he should get significantly less time, with one even calling for his acquittal.

That prompted an angry rebuttal Friday from Australian co-prosecutor William Smith, who said the defense assertions showed Duch was "not facing up to who he was back in 1975 to 1979."

On Thursday, Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux, told the court that his client was unfairly being made a "scapegoat" for all the wrongs committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Addressing the court Wednesday, Duch apologized to the dead, their families, survivors of the regime and to all Cambodians _ something he has done repeatedly since the trial began in March.

He said he was "deeply remorseful and profoundly affected by the destruction on such a mind-boggling scale."

Some survivors and other victims of the Khmer Rouge attending the U.N.-backed trial said a 40-year prison term, which would likely lock up Duch for life, would not be harsh enough and urged that a life sentence be handed down.