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Like Speer, he had no choice, Khmer Rouge jailer to say

Six decades after the Nuremberg trials, the name of Nazi cabinet minister Albert Speer is set to be resurrected here Wednesday as the chief jailer for Cambodia's Khmer Rouge will tell his own trial that he, like Mr. Speer, had no choice but to carry out the murderous orders of his bosses.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, sat impassively in the dock Tuesday as prosecutors made their final arguments before a United Nations-assisted tribunal trying him for crimes against humanity, homicide and torture.

The prosecution reminded a panel of five judges how Comrade Duch had presided over the deaths of at least 12,273 inmates at the notorious S-21 prison in the centre of Phnom Penh while the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from mid-1975 to early 1979.

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The defence will take its turn Wednesday, with Comrade Duch expected to apologize, as he has in the past, to the handful of survivors of S-21 as well as the families of his victims, and to plead for forgiveness. He has already admitted responsibility for what went on at S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, but denies he personally killed or tortured anyone.

The 67-year-old has told his lawyers that he would like to address the court himself for one to two hours Wednesday, after which his lawyers will make their closing arguments, which will include a comparison of Comrade Duch to Mr. Speer. As part of its presentation, the defence has submitted a copy of The Two Worlds of Albert Speer, a memoir by former Nuremburg prosecutor Henry King, to the court.

Mr. Speer was the only member of Adolf Hitler's inner circle to co-operate with the Nuremburg tribunal and give information to prosecutors. As a result of that co-operation, as well as his assertion that he was only carrying out his duties while serving as chief Nazi architect and Hitler's minister of armaments, Mr. Speer avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died in 1981, 15 years after his release.

Similarly, Comrade Duch is the only senior member of the Khmer Rouge to co-operate with the tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Four other former high-ranking officials – including the former head of state, Khieu Samphan, and the regime's "Brother Number Two," Nuon Chea – are due to stand trial within the next two years. All have refused to enter a plea or answer questions from prosecutors.

Anticipating Comrade Duch's defence, prosecutor Chea Leang gave him credit for co-operating but argued his crimes were so terrible that he should not be given any leniency. While Cambodia has no death penalty, she argued for an unspecified but "lengthy" prison term when the sentence is handed down some time next year.

"He was the personification of ruthless efficiency. He was totally indifferent to the suffering of the victims. He was the perfect candidate to run S-21," she told the court. "The crimes of which he will stand convicted are of such an extreme seriousness and were committed against so many people that it is inconceivable that anything other than a lengthy sentence of imprisonment should be imposed upon him."

During her five-plus hour summation of the prosecution's case, Ms. Chea attacked Comrade Duch's claim that he was just a cog in the Khmer Rouge machinery who would have been killed along with his family if he hadn't acted as he did. She portrayed him as having direct access to the country's leadership, and final say over who lived and who died at S-21. "The accused was one of the most significant, if not the most significant, individual in [the Khmer Rouge]s security apparatus. It is clear that secrets were not kept from him," she said.

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S-21, the high school that Comrade Duch converted into a detention and torture complex, still stands in the centre of Phnom Penh as a grim memorial to the Khmer Rouge era, during which a fifth of the population, an estimated 1.7 million people, died from famine, overwork or execution.

The makeshift isolation cells that Comrade Duch ordered built in the classrooms still stand, as does a sign listing off the 10 rules he set out for inmates. The latter give the impression that he was in complete command of the jail. "You are strictly prohibited to contest me," reads one.

Ms. Chea said that the 12,273 inmates confirmed to have died after passing through S-21 was likely a low figure, with others estimating that as many as 16,000 men, women and children died there. Some were killed on or around the school grounds, Ms. Chea said, while others were taken to mass graves in rural areas outside the city that became known as "the killing fields."

As Ms. Chea went over the horrors that occurred at S-21 – from medical experimentation on live prisoners to force-feeding them human feces to the murder of infants – Comrade Duch sat silently, wearing a beige jacket over a white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. He occasionally sipped from a bottle of water and several times turned around in his chair to examine the audience, which included several hundred high school students as well as a group of white-clad Buddhist nuns and orange-robed monks watching the proceedings from the other side of a wall of bulletproof glass.

While victims have complained of the tribunal's slow pace in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, Comrade Duch's trial has captivated the country as it nears its end. Millions were expected to tune in to live television broadcasts of this week's final arguments by both sides.

Much of the fascination surrounds Comrade Duch himself. Some have come to see the former mathematics teacher as another victim of the Khmer Rouge, while lawyers and the families of his victims have accused him of feigning contrition as a legal strategy.

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"Some say, 'Oh look, he gave a lot of co-operation to the process, he's told everything he knows, he's confessed, he's converted to Christianity,' " said Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, a group that has been monitoring the trial. "But if Duch had some heart, had some pity on the detainees, he could have helped some to avoid death or to escape the jail. Normally, out of more than 10,000 people, there should have been one or two like this. But there was no one."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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