The wizened Comrade Duch has become the face of the Khmer Rouge trials. Known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the clunky, UN-backed tribunal will wind up its first case this week with final arguments against Duch, otherwise known as Kaing Guek Eav. To a degree, Duch, 66, is the fall guy for the Khmer Rouge regime that's been held responsible for the deaths of about 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s.
He was the head of the so-called death camp — s21, a former high school that became a prison where more than 14,000 people were held, tortured and
exterminated for being enemies of the communist regime.
The court has heard horrendous tales of crimes against humanity; babies being bashed to death on tree trunks, women being raped, men having their fingers and toes cut off, their bodies stretched, their heads dipped into drums of water until they drowned, and worse.
But Duch was a mere mid-level leader of the Khmer Rouge. He has apologised for ordering mass murder and torture, but he argues that if he hadn't done it, he would have been killed himself.
Sitting as it does in the centre of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, s21, otherwise known as Tuol Sleng, has become a shrine to those killed under the extreme form of communism preached by the Khmer Rouge. The shabby complex is still in a relatively similar state to the days when the regime was ousted in 1979.
Steel beds rigged with shackles and instruments of pain remain in place, blood stains the floors and thousands of foreign tourists stare in horror at thousands more bleak mug shots of the men, women and children who entered but never left.
For that reason, a decisive verdict against Duch when the finding is delivered early next year would resonate internationally. The UN and the international donors who have spent hundreds of millions running the court say it's time for justice, and in Duch they have the perfect vehicle. If he's found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, photographs of him and the horrors of S21 will flood the world. The UN, which supported the Khmer Rouge killing machine at the time, will feel better.
The international community, which also gave the regime some backing, will be somewhat cleansed. The existence of the court will be justified – in part. But in most ordinary households around Cambodia, the completion of the Duch case will be barely noticed.
For starters, he's the most junior of the five Khmer Rouge leaders who have been charged by the court. Everyone knows that he wasn't the one pulling the strings of power that strangled, electrocuted, bashed and starved millions to death. Pol Pot, the leader, is dead. His key underlings who have been charged by the court, are aged, ailing and may not live through their trials. Five further suspects being targeted by the court may also never be tried due to a combination of local politics and lack of funds.
Cambodia's Government, which is stacked with former Khmer Rouge operatives, wants the population to forget the past. Prime Minister Hun Sen has strongly and publicly opposed any further prosecutions, arguing that the court is about appeasing international guilt rather than national healing. With the majority of Cambodians under 30 years old, that view holds a grain of truth.
For them, the past is akin to a horror story because most weren't even born when the regime was in power. It would barely be believable, except for the fact that everyone is missing relatives, and in many cases, entire family trees have been wiped out.
It can be argued that the mere existence of the court as a forum for the telling of stories and as a tool in the search for truth is worthwhile. That in itself is a key part of any process of national healing. But unlike similar approaches used elsewhere – such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was a cathartic way of dealing with national pain – many Cambodians don't feel the need to be healed, because they're so young that they simply weren't here.
The court's recent announcement that it would pursue further cases has already been shot down by the increasingly hardline Cambodian Government, which has shown a propensity for prosecuting its critics. It also argues that dredging up the past could lead to civil war.
So, much of the pressure for further prosecutions is coming not from inside Cambodia — but from outside.
During its closing arguments, the defence will argue that like Hitler's offsider Albert Speer, who avoided the death penalty after admitting his guilt during the Nuremberg trials, Comrade Duch should avoid life in prison because he's said sorry and helped foster reconciliation.
He claims that he's used his later years to seek redemption. He's co-operated with the court, and has asked the families of his victims for forgiveness. He's the only one of those charged so far to admit his guilt. But successfully prosecuting another case will be fraught for the court, which has been dogged by accusations of corruption and has spent 10 years and hundreds of million of dollars just to get to the end of this first trial.
This verdict may end up being its only chance to justify its existence.
Zoe Daniel is an ABC journalist who is on leave and living in Cambodia.