PHNOM PENH—Cambodia’s chief torturer under the Khmer Rouge said he doesn't expect forgiveness at his trial on Tuesday, the second day of a legal reckoning 30 years in the making.
Kaing Guek Eav, 66—better known as Duch—set down his prepared remarks and spoke directly to the crowded courtroom.
"At the beginning I only prayed to ask for forgiveness from my parents, but later I prayed to ask forgiveness from the whole nation," he said.
But he said he understands that it will be hard for Cambodians to forgive him for his atrocities, particularly those against women and children.
Duch is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity as well as murder and torture and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Cambodia has no death penalty.
He served as commandant of the group's main S-21 or Tuol Sleng Prison, where as many as 16,000 men women and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths.
The tribunal marks the first bid to assign legal responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians from starvation, medical neglect, overwork, and execution under the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, whose top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
On Monday, Duch appeared unflinching as the indictment was read out in court, including allegations that prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses, and that children were taken from parents and dropped to their deaths or that some prisoners were bled to death.
He spoke publicly in court for the first time on Tuesday.
Duch said he tried to avoid becoming commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, but once in the job, he feared his family would suffer unless he followed orders.
He voiced "my deep regretfulness and my heartfelt sorrow" for all the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Duch is one of five surviving leaders of the regime scheduled to go before the court.
More trials to come
Critics allege that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought to limit the tribunal's scope because other potential defendants are now his political allies.
On Tuesday, Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge fighter himself—warned that putting more Khmer Rouge cadres on trial for crimes committed during Pol Pot's 1975-79 reign of terror could plunge the country back into civil war.
Speaking at the opening of an industrial zone in the port of Sihanoukville, Hun Sen said the trials should not go beyond the five charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"If as many as 20 Khmer Rouge are indicted to stand trial and war returns to Cambodia, who will be responsible for that?," he told the audience.
The trial resumes Wednesday.
After Duch, the others awaiting trial are "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, the regime's ex-president Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, its foreign minister, and his wife. They deny any wrongdoing.
Hun Sen, 58, joined the Khmer Rouge during their 1970-75 guerilla war against the U.S.-backed government of General Lon Nol. He rose to be a junior commander and lost an eye in fighting just before the rebels took the capital, Phnom Penh.
He has said he defected to Vietnam in mid-1977 and played no part in Pol Pot's bloody agrarian revolution, in which an estimated 1.7 million people, or a third of the population, died.
Original reporting by Huy Vannak, Leng Maly, and Sok Ry Sum for RFA's Khmer service. Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press. Service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.