Kaing Guek Eav, who is better know by his alias, Duch, and was ex-commandant of the notorious S-21 prison, is this first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the U.N.-assisted tribunal. He did not address the court. The hearing was for procedural matters, and testimony was expected to begin in late March.
"This first hearing represents the realization of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodian and international law," presiding judge Nil Nonn told the chamber, reported the Associated Press.
Hundreds of victims, including Buddhist monks who were persecuted during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era, packed the public gallery, reacting with anger and relief at the sight of 66-year-old Duch.
"This is the day we have waited for 30 years," Vann Nath, 63, told Reuters. Nath was one of a handful of survivors from S-21, where up to 16,000 men, women and children were held and tortured, before being put to death. Only 12 survived S-21, according to the U.S.-funded Documentation Center of Cambodia.
"Duch's hands are full of blood. It's time for Duch to pay for his actions," 39-year-old Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor of S-21, told Reuters.
Duch, now a born-again Christian, has made no formal confession, but has "admitted or acknowledged" that many of the crimes occurred at his prison, according to the indictment from court judges.
"Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims and the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly," French defense lawyer Francois Roux told reporters at the specially built court outside the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
According to the tribunal indictment, in one mass execution, Duch gave his men a "kill them all" order to dispose of a group of prisoners. On another list of 29 prisoners, he gave the order to "interrogate four persons, kill the rest."
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names before he was located in northwestern Cambodia by a British journalist in 1999, according to the AP.
The trial ends a decade of wrangling over the tribunal, which had been plagued by political interference from the Cambodian government, allegations of bias and corruption, lack of funding and bickering between Cambodian and international lawyers.
Some observers also believe Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge officer, is controlling the tribunal's scope by directing the decisions of the Cambodian prosecutors and judges.
Pol Pot's death in 1998 was followed by a formal Khmer Rouge surrender which helped to usher in a decade of peace and stability, threatened now by the global economic downturn.