PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Medics working for Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge rulers at a notorious death camp slowly killed prisoners by draining their blood to be used for infusions for privileged cadres, according to allegations presented Monday at a hearing for one of the regime's leaders.
Kang Kek Ieu ran the S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed in the nearby "killing fields" outside the capital, Phnom Penh. The rail-thin former teacher faces charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder before the court, which is run by both Cambodian and international officials.
Kang, 66, known as Kaing Geuk Eav in tribunal filings but best known by the nom de guerre Duch, is one of five detained senior leaders believed to be the architects of the Maoist regime's fanatical rule in the late 1970s, under which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished from overwork or starvation or were slain.
The regime's leader, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, and its military chief, Ta Mok, have died.
In custody and under investigation by the court are Khieu Samphan, the group's head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was minister of social affairs; and Nuon Chea, or "Brother No. 2", the movement's chief ideologue. All four are old and ailing, and their trials are unlikely to begin until next year. They face a maximum of life imprisonment.
Unlike the other figures in detention, Kang, who is now a born-again Christian, has acknowledged his crimes and asked for forgiveness.
He is expected to make a full confession, but that will not end the trial. According to the tribunal's rules, he cannot plead guilty -- a confession will be treated as an element of evidence. Kang is also expected to argue in court that he was following orders and would have been killed had he not obeyed.
He spoke only briefly Monday, identifying himself with his name and aliases and giving the names of his wives and children.
While the trial opened formally last month, Monday marked the beginning of substantive hearings under the court's top judge, Nil Nonn. Prison guards, survivors and family members of those brutalized at Tuol Sleng will be called upon to testify.
A clerk read out the grisly allegation that about 1,000 prisoners died from having their blood slowly drained, along with an exhaustive list of alleged crimes by Kang.
Others who suffered were present at the packed courthouse to watch.
Orm Chanta's husband did not pass through Tuol Sleng but what he suffered was just as cruel. Orm, 69, said she witnessed her husband being buried alive by Khmer Rouge cadres after they shot him. His crime, they said, without elaborating, was being "a traitor to the regime."
Orm said that his education and profession -- he is a doctor -- made him suspicious to the regime, which particularly targeted those with money, an urban background and an education, the antithesis of the regime's vision of an agrarian peasant society.
"I have for a very long time been determined to come today to see if the pain in my heart can heal," she said, bursting into tears.
Van Nath, one of the prison's few survivors, said he witnessed prisoners being waterboarded, doused with battery acid or simply bludgeoned to force them to admit to imaginary crimes against the regime. He survived only because of his artistic skills, which he was forced to use to paint propaganda portraits of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Van, who did not attend Monday's hearing, said he had been "waiting for justice every day" since his captivity.
The court has suffered through years of political obstruction, judicial bickering, corruption allegations and funding shortages.
Observers have urged the Cambodian side of the court to allow further investigations to begin. Canadian prosecutor Robert Petit's move to add to the docket a handful of unidentified figures he describes as key enforcers was blocked by his Cambodian colleague, Chea Leang, a niece of the current deputy prime minister.
She has argued that additional prosecutions could prove destabilizing, overstretch the tribunal's limited resources and would run against the spirit of the 2003 U.N. treaty establishing the court, which called for only "senior leaders" of the regime and "those who were most responsible" to be tried.
Many senior Cambodian government posts are held by former Khmer Rouge, and experts say the government fears a wider roundup could expose them to scrutiny. Though facing stiff resistance, Petit has argued that expanding the court's reach would play a key role in validating its work.
Brady is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Keo Kounila contributed to this report.