K. Rouge Hearing Wraps Up with Atrocity Film Row

PHNOM PENH ~ Lawyers at the trial of the Khmer Rouge’s chief torturer clashed on Wednesday over the use of a film taken by Vietnamese troops showing the prison where he oversaw 15,000 deaths.

The arguments came as the UN-backed Cambodian genocide tribunal wrapped up the opening session of the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, after just a day and a half. Full hearings are expected to start next month.

Duch’s lawyers opposed a prosecution bid to show footage shot by Vietnamese troops showing conditions at the prison two days after they helped to topple the communist Khmer Rouge regime on January 7, 1979.

“We the defense regard this video footage as having political motivation in nature to disguise the truth of the nature of the event,” co-defense lawyer Kar Savuth said, adding that it was effectively a Vietnamese propaganda film.

The seven-minute, black-and-white video shows scenes of horror inside the abandoned prison, which was a former high school, including several bloated corpses strapped to iron bedframes where they were apparently tortured.

It also shows five children who survived the retreat of the Khmer Rouge from the jail by hiding in a pile of washing.

Prosecutors said it was essential for the tribunal to see the film, partly because it confirmed that children were held at the notorious jail as well as men and women.

“It is an absolute must for this trial chamber to have all available evidence,” said co-prosecutor Robert Petit, adding that they wanted to call the Vietnamese cameraman and other witnesses related to the video.

Cameraman Ho Van Tay was reunited with one of the child survivors, Cambodian Norng Chan Pal, at a news conference on Monday when they discussed the contents of the film.

Lawyers also presented lists of witnesses whose admissibility the court is considering.

Duch, a former maths teacher now aged 66, could be seen listening impassively to the arguments through headphones.

Chief judge Nil Nonn later announced the end of the initial session but did not say when the trial would restart. Court spokeswoman Helen Jarvis said substantive hearings would likely begin in late March.

Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder, and faces a life sentence.

He has taken responsibility for his iron-fisted rule at Tuol Sleng, which was used as a mass torture centre to extract confessions from alleged traitors that they were spies for the CIA, KGB and other foreign powers.

Only a handful of the estimated 15,000 men, women and children sent to the prison are known to have survived. Most were executed and buried in mass graves at the so-called “Killing Fields” in Choeung Ek near the capital.

Duch has previously expressed regret for his crimes but has said that he was acting under orders from leaders of the 1975-1979 communist Khmer Rouge.

Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge rose to power as a tragic spinoff from the US conflict in Vietnam, emptying Cambodia’s cities to take society back to a rural “Year Zero.”

Up to two million people were executed or died of starvation and overwork under the movement.

Former Vietnamese leader Le Duc Anh, who helped organize the 1979 invasion to oust the Khmer Rouge, on Wednesday hailed the start of the trial of Duch.

“Thirty years after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge, I say better late than never,” Anh, who served as president of communist Vietnam from 1992-97, said in an interview with the online daily VietnamNet.

“Not judging them for what they did was almost like condoning the crimes of people who set up a genocidal regime.”

The Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal was established in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between Cambodia and the United Nations, and has been further delayed by legal arguments and bail hearings.

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