PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The Khmer Rouge's chief torturer and jailer asked to be freed Friday, the final day of testimony for the first member of Cambodia's brutal former regime to face justice, saying he was not a top leader.
The request for acquittal at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal was a shock development in the nine-month trial of the commander of the notorious S-21 prison, 67-year-old former maths teacher Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.
Duch is accused of "crimes against humanity, enslavement, torture, sexual abuses and other inhumane acts" as commander of S-21 during one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, when 1.7 million people died under the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.
Only seven of 14,000 people who passed through S-21 survived.
"I would like the court to release me," Duch said.
The chamber of three Cambodian and two foreign judges asked Duch's Cambodian defense lawyer for clarification, questioning whether there was a mistake in the translation of Duch's statement from the Khmer language.
"When my client asked for release, he means because he was not the senior leader of the Khmer Rouge," said the lawyer, Kar Savuth, who repeated his assertion that Duch's life was at stake when he ordered the murders of thousands of people at S-21.Prosecutors have urged the tribunal to reject the argument that Duch had little choice but to carry out orders, saying he was "ideologically of the same mind" as the Khmer Rouge leaders and did nothing to stop prison guards from inflicting torture.
They have sought a 40-year prison sentence.
Witnesses in 72 days of hearings spoke of beatings with metal pipes, electrocution, near-starvation, rape and prisoners forced to eat their own excrement or being bled to death at the S-21 prison, a converted high school also known as Tuol Sleng.
"This accused person is a real criminal. He is behind the crimes committed at S-21. He was the secretary of the S-21 who oversaw all administrations, the management of the whole function of the center," co-prosecutor Chea Leang told the court.
A verdict is expected by March. Duch faces up to life in prison. Cambodia does not have capital punishment.
The tribunal seeks justice for nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population who perished from execution, overwork or torture during the Khmer Rouge's agrarian revolution, which ended with the 1979 invasion by Vietnam.
Lawyer Savuth said the tribunal should show leniency because Duch had cooperated and apologized, and that he had already suffered by living on the run as a fugitive for 20 years before his arrest in 1999, followed by another decade in jail.
That argument caused laughter among some Cambodians present.Another defense lawyer, Francois Roux, described Duch as a "political hostage" and said those accountable for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge were seven top officials who set its policies, including leader Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Included in that list are three of four senior Khmer Rouge cadres in custody awaiting trial -- ex-president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea. Unlike Duch, they have not publicly apologized.
Lead prosecutor William Smith told the court this week "the accused was neither a prisoner, nor a hostage, nor a victim. He was an idealist, a revolutionary, a crusader ... prepared to torture and kill willingly for the good of the revolution."
Now a born-again Christian, Duch expressed "excruciating remorse" Wednesday for the S-21 victims, most of them tortured and forced to confess to spying and other crimes before they were bludgeoned to death at the "Killing Fields" execution sites.
Duch has said he was convinced he was fighting to free Cambodia from U.S. imperialism during the Vietnam War.
(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould)