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"Killing Fields" lawyers clash over torture film

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Lawyers at the trial of Pol Pot’s chief torturer argued on Wednesday over the admissibility of footage taken by Vietnamese soldiers inside his torture centre after they ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia in 1979.

Lawyers for Duch, chief of the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Peng where at least 14,000 “enemies of the revolution” were killed, said they were shocked at the prosecution’s last-minute bid to use the film as evidence against their client.

“We absolutely object to the submission of the footage,” Duch’s Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, told the court set up to prosecute those most responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era.

The joint United Nations-Cambodian tribunal was adjourned on Wednesday after a two-day hearing dominated by procedural issues ahead of a full-blown trial in March.

The seven-minute, black-and-white film shot by a Vietnamese army film crew days after their troops drove Pol Pot’s fighters from Phnom Penh shows the bodies of emaciated inmates, some of them still in chains.

At a press conference on the eve of the trial on Monday, two members of the Vietnamese crew said they had also found five child survivors of S-21 hiding under piles of prisoners’ clothing. One child died soon after from malnutrition, they said.

Kar Savuth questioned how the children could have escaped Duch’s order to kill everyone at S-21 as the Vietnamese marched on the capital.

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They said the film and potential new witnesses should have been vetted by investigating judges who spent a year preparing cases against Duch and four other senior Pol Pot cadres.

They also opposed the submission of more than 50 new documents, including interrogation reports with Duch’s alleged handwritten notes ordering the individuals to be put to death.

“This video is politically motivated to disguise the truth,” Kar Savuth said, adding that the Vietnamese cameramen should be called to testify at the trial.

That could inflame passions in Cambodia, where the Vietnamese removal of Pol Pot is viewed by some as the start of a 10-year occupation by hated neighbours.

REBUTTAL

Foreign co-prosecutor Robert Petit made an angry rebuttal of the defence accusations, saying the video and additional documents were vital evidence against Duch, who is charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and homicide.

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“The substance of this trial, indeed its foremost purpose, is to bring justice to those 14,000-plus victims at S-21,” he said, adding that Duch’s pre-trial admission of guilt was not enough.

“No matter how inconvenient it might be to read 50 documents, it is an absolute must for this trial chamber to have all the relevant evidence before them.”

Before facing the tribunal, Duch, now a born-again Christian, asked for forgiveness for the deaths. His lawyers have argued that he was only following orders and should not be made a scapegoat for the Khmer Rouge era.

Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Sanjeev Miglani

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