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Former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, also know as Duch, sits in the courtroom during the first full day of a UN-backed tribunal on Monday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. ((Mak Remissa/Pool/Associated Press))

A genocide tribunal in Cambodia heard a lengthy litany of Khmer Rouge horrors on Monday to begin the substantive phase of the first trial against a member of the brutal regime that ruled the country decades ago.

Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch, is charged with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide for his role running a prison where as many as 16,000 people were brutally tortured before being sent to their deaths.

Duch, 66, is the first of five officials from Pol Pot's hardcore communist regime that from 1975 to 1979 turned Cambodia into a vast labour camp and killing field.

The indictment read Monday spells out a record of the period in "more detail than we've ever had before," said Prof. Alex Hinton, director of Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, who was in the courtroom.

The lengthy document — read aloud by court officials over a period of several hours on Monday — indicated that every prisoner who arrived at the Phnom Penh torture centre known as S-21, or Tuol Sleng was destined for execution.

Duch's job was to obtain confessions of counterrevolutionary activity before sending the prisoners — men, women and children — to their deaths.

"Interrogators used several forms of torture in order to extract confessions from prisoners," the indictment said. "According to Duch, only four methods of torture were allowed: beating, electrocution, placing a plastic bag over the head and pouring water into the nose."

According to the statement, Duch was also aware that some prisoners had their fingers and toenails removed while others were forced to eat their own excrement.

Duch methodically recorded the treatment of each prisoner in thousands of documents that were found in the compound after the Khmer Rouge fell in January 1979. One shows Duch's signature on a list of prisoners with the words "Kill them all."

Pleas not yet entered

Duch has not delivered his pleas and is not expected to speak until Wednesday.

Opening statements by the prosecutors and defence have also not yet been made.

The UN-assisted genocide tribunal is seeking to establish responsibility for the group's 1975-79 misrule of the country under Pol Pot. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the Khmer Rouge.

The trial is being broadcast on Cambodian state television and radio. Estimates by the government suggest that up to 70 per cent of the country's population — about 14.3 million people — are expected to tune in.

'It's going to be a painful process but it's a process that we believe will lead to … a feeling that finally justice is achieved.'—Helen Jarvis,, tribunal spokeswoman

Survivors from around Cambodia gathered in the specially constructed auditorium-like courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that has allocated 500 seats for the public to watch the trial.

"I never thought I would have a chance to see Duch and sit in on this trial," said Svay Simon, 64, who lost 10 relatives and his leg during the regime.

"When I saw [Duch] I was angry and happy. Angry because he killed my wife. Happy because there is a court now to punish him," said survivor Bou Meng, after Monday's proceedings.

Duch will apologize

During a procedural hearing leading up to the trial, Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux, said that his client wanted "to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people."

Duch is the only one of the five currently accused to acknowledge a role in the killings.

Roux said Duch will make his apology publicly. "This is the very least he owes the victims."

Duch, a former teacher, disappeared after the group fell from power. He lived under two different names, returned to teaching and converted to Christianity.

He was discovered by a British journalist in the Cambodian countryside in 1999 and has been held in detention awaiting trial since.

Duch's trial officially opened in February with the tribunal's five judges ruling on procedural issues, including scheduling and witnesses.

Monday marks the beginning of the trial's substantive phase, which will allow Duch to tell his story and face victims and their families.

"It's going to be a painful process but it's a process that we believe will lead to … a feeling that finally justice is achieved, and it will be worth experiencing this pain," said public affairs chief for Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia Helen Jarvis.

The verdict at the end of the trial is expected to be broadcast live. If found guilty, Duch could face a maximum sentence of life in prison. There is no death penalty in Cambodia.

Key witness

Human rights groups have pushed for the list of war crimes accused to be expanded beyond Duch and four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

Critics of the tribunal charge that Cambodia's government has sought to limit its scope because other suspects are loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and to arrest them could be politically awkward.

Duch is expected to be a key witness in the future trials of Khieu Samphan, the group's former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the government's chief ideologue.

The four other defendants have denied committing any crimes or having any knowledge of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

With files from the Associated Press