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Comrade Duch in the Dock

Born-again Khmer Rouge prison director apologizes, asks for forgiveness in trial.

In four years, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million of their fellow Cambodians. In the first trial that addresses the horrors of the regime, the man known as Comrade Duch has asked forgiveness for crimes against humanity, war crimes, homicide, and torture.

Duch is the nom de guerre of Kaing Guek Eav. He ran Security Center 21, a prison where 17,000 people, including children were "smashed." As The Financial Times reports, that's "the Khmer Rouge's chilling euphemism for torturing and murdering victims as part of the regime's attempt to create a perfect agrarian society."

Duch is making the news for taking responsibility and apologizing - something none of the other accused have come close to. "At the beginning I only prayed to ask for forgiveness from my parents, but later I prayed to ask forgiveness from the whole nation."

Prayed? It's not a mistranslation. Duch was baptized under the pseudonym Hang Pin after his wife was murdered in 1996. Purpose Driven Connection published a story about his conversion and discovery by British journalist Nic Dunlop (Dunlop discovered Duch's identity; Mary Murphy wrote the Purpose Driven Connection article). Their reporter, Mary Murphy, spoke to his pastor the only one who has been let in to see him. He says Duch has been reading the Bible to prisoners and guards during his imprisonment.

However, Murphy reports,

Truth be told, it is hard to find many in Cambodia who believe in Duch's sincerity. [Chief investigator] Youk skirts around the spiritual implications of the question. He pauses for a while to collect his thoughts. "I think Duch was living with guilt and perhaps looking for something to reconcile with, within himself," he says. "Duch is looking for an exit strategy, an internal reconciliation with himself. But he dare not go to anybody here, because they are all his enemies. The only ones he can go to are Christians."

Buddhist monks I interview later at their temple are even more dismissive. "Duch has become a Christian to earn points," one monk scoffs. "In our belief, you take your sins with you to the next life. Duch will surely come back in a form befitting his crime."

What sort of form of life? The monk doesn't hesitate. "A bug."

Duch's defense is arguing that he shouldn't face the life sentence because he was following orders, trying to save his and his family's lives. He says he is a scapegoat for those who were higher up in the regime. The trial is expected to last a few months.

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