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The move comes as a genocide tribunal looks into Cambodia's holocaust of the 1970s.

A former schoolteacher who presided over a torture center was charged Tuesday with crimes against humanity, becoming the first top figure of Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge to be indicted in connection with atrocities that led to an estimated 1.7-million deaths.

Duch, 62, also known as Kaing Guek Eav, headed the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, a virtual slaughterhouse where about 16,000 suspected enemies of the regime were tortured before being taken out to what later became known as "killing fields" near the city.

Cambodia's holocaust during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 reign of terror was the first major case of genocide of the late 20th century. As many as one-fifth of the country's citizens died as a result of the radical policies of the group and its leader, Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

But until this year, when personnel and facilities for a United Nations-backed genocide tribunal were finally in place, those responsible remained mostly at large, leaving the victims of the killing fields little hope of justice.

Duch, whose formal name also has been transliterated as Kaing Khek Iev, was one of five top Khmer Rouge figures whose indictments were recommended last month by prosecutors of the tribunal, which is a mixed body of Cambodian and international jurists. The judges have not yet released the names of the four others.

The Khmer Rouge was founded in the 1950s by Cambodian communists, including several leading ones educated in France, which had been the country's colonial master until independence in 1953. The group was a growing but marginal force until 1970, when a pro-Western coup ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power, and Cambodia was drawn into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War.

Some historians think that heavy U.S. bombing of the countryside radicalized many peasants, swelling the guerrilla ranks.

With backing from an embittered Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge won a five-year civil war. The group immediately demonstrated its extremist determination by emptying the capital, Phnom Penh, of its inhabitants within days of its victory on April 17, 1975, and sent the city dwellers to toil on rural communes.

In waves of deadly purges, the Khmer Rouge eliminated civil servants and soldiers of the old regime, the merchant class and intellectuals. Others died of hunger, disease and overwork.

But the revolutionaries soon turned on each other, and those taken to Duch's prison were in many cases loyal Khmer Rouge members who became victims of paranoid suspicion. The schisms weakened the regime, which tumbled in 1979 after an invasion by neighboring Vietnam.

Three senior-level colleagues of Pol Pot are living freely in Cambodia, albeit in declining health: Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue; Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state.


What happened

The charge: A former schoolteacher who presided over a torture center during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s was charged with crimes against humanity.

The significance: The man, known as Duch, is the first top Khmer Rouge figure to be indicted for atrocities that led to about 1.7-million deaths.

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