PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — A Khmer Rouge prison chief accused of mass murder accepted responsibility Tuesday for the torture and death of thousands of Cambodians, telling a genocide tribunal he was "full of shame and regret."
"I admit that I am responsible for the crimes, torture and execution at S-21," said Kang Kek Ieu, 66, who was converted to evangelical Christianity before his imprisonment.
Better known by the nom de guerre Duch, he ran the torture center, also called Tuol Sleng, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed in the nearby "killing fields" outside Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
"I apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during the regime," Kang said in a prepared statement to the U.N.-backed tribunal. "I don't ask that you forgive me now, but I hope you will later."
Kang is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder. He is one of five detained senior Khmer Rouge leaders believed to be the architects of the ultra-Maoist regime's fanatical rule in the late 1970s, during which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished from overwork, starvation and murder.
Kang said insisted that he was not a decision-maker, saying he was following orders from his superiors and that he and his family would have been killed had he not obeyed.
"I did that because I received orders from Angkar," he said, referring to the regime's power center. "Although I knew the orders were criminal, I never dared to question them because it was a life-or-death situation for me and my family."
Kang also showed an illustration he drew of regime leader Pol Pot flanked by Nuon Chea, the regime's chief ideologue, and Ta Mok, its military commander, whose nickname was "The Butcher." Kang indicated that he saw them as forming the top echelon of the Khmer Rouge command. Pol Pot and Ta Mok are dead; Nuon Chea is a detainee of the court.
According to the tribunal's rules, Kang cannot plead guilty; a confession is treated simply as an element of evidence. He could face a sentence of five years to life. If convicted, he is expected to ask that the 10 years he spent in military prison and in pretrial detention be counted against his sentence.
Defense lawyer Kar Savuth said the tribunal had overstepped its mandate by trying Kang, arguing that the defendant was not a "senior leader" or part of "those who were most responsible," the two categories that qualify a former Khmer Rouge cadre for prosecution.
He said his client was being unfairly singled out. "Duch is being prosecuted as a scapegoat for the other 195 prison chiefs," he said.
Delivering the prosecution's opening remarks in the morning, Robert Petit of Canada worked to undermine the resonance of Kang's anticipated confession. The evidence, he said, "will establish without any doubt that the accused had independent authority with S-21 that he used knowingly and actively" to have prisoners tortured and killed.
He said Kang must have known that his role at S-21 was "part of a widespread and systematic attack on the population."
While Kang's confession provided a dramatic scene of long-awaited contrition within the courtroom, its greater resonance lay in making the tribunal more relevant for the population, observers said.
Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang had invoked the need for national healing in her argument for punishing Kang and for exposing what she said were his crimes against the population.
"For 30 years, the survivors have been waiting for their accountability," she said.
"For 30 years, an entire generation has been struggling to get answers about their family's fate."
Kang's testimony breathed life into the otherwise highly technical proceedings by offering the brand of straight-from-the-mouth explanations and admissions of guilt that resonates with the average Cambodian, said Nic Dunlop, a photojournalist who found Kang in 1999 near the border with Thailand. He described it as "surreal" to see the man he interviewed a decade ago stand before the court.
Dunlop doubted the live confession would bridge the gap between the court and the world most Cambodians inhabit.
Half of the population is younger than 20 and unfamiliar with the details of the atrocities that predated them, an ignorance compounded by the lack of Khmer Rouge history in school curricula. More than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, where the tribunal is a distant phenomenon.
"If it weren't for Duch and his testimony, the whole process would be completely irrelevant," Dunlop said. "Otherwise, the court is so abstract to Cambodians in the countryside."
Brady and Kounila are special correspondents.