AFP - Cambodia's UN-backed genocide tribunal on Monday officially set February 17 as the start date for the long-awaited first trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of atrocities in the 1970s.
Court documents said the hearing for former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav -- better known as Comrade Duch -- will be for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention as well as premeditated murder and torture.
Duch, 66, will be the first leader of Cambodia's brutal 1975-1979 communist regime to stand trial at the tribunal, an initial step towards justice for the up to two million people who died under Khmer Rouge rule.
He will be tried for "his acts or omissions in Phnom Penh and within the territory of Cambodia between 17 April 1975 and 6 January 1979," said the court documents, released to the media on Monday.
Duch was indicted last year for allegedly overseeing the torture and extermination of more than 12,000 men, women and children when he headed Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21.
"This is what we have been waiting for for so long," said Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath, who made it through years in the prison because he was put to work painting pictures that celebrated the regime.
"Now we know the clear date for the trial. And we hope that we will know the truth that we have been waiting 30 years for," added Vann Nath.
A mathematics teacher who became the Khmer Rouge's torturer-in-chief, Duch has been in prison since 1999 for his role at Tuol Sleng. He was formally transferred to the tribunal in July 2007.
Thousands of inmates were taken from the centre he ran for execution at Choeung Ek, now infamously known as the Killing Fields.
The indictment last August gave a detailed breakdown of the horrific conditions at Tuol Sleng and Duch's alleged role in the atrocities, saying that every prisoner who arrived there was destined for execution.
"Duch personally tortured or mistreated detainees at S-21 on a number of separate occasions and through a variety of means," the indictment said.
Chum Mey, another survivor of Tuol Sleng, who was spared because he was put to use repairing car engines, called Monday's announcement "another step toward justice."
"I want Duch to speak about the truth of the regime and where he got the order to kill the people," Chum Mey said.
Up to two million people were executed or died of starvation and overwork as the regime emptied Cambodia's cities, exiling millions to vast collective farms in a bid to forge a communist utopia.
Duch is one of five Khmer Rouge leaders who have been detained by the court for their alleged roles in the regime.
Also in detention awaiting trial are "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was the minister of social affairs.
Established in 2006 after nearly a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the UN, the long-stalled tribunal has met controversy as it seeks to prosecute crimes committed 30 years ago by senior Khmer Rouge leaders.
At least two of the top Cambodian tribunal officials have been accused of corruption by some defence lawyers in connection with an alleged scheme where local staff were forced to pay kickbacks for their jobs.
The court will also soon be tested by an upcoming ruling on whether to pursue more former Khmer Rouge leaders, after a disagreement between the tribunal's co-prosecutors on whether to broaden investigations.
The tribunal received a boost earlier this month when Japan's foreign minister pledged funding of 21 million dollars during a visit to Cambodia.