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A special Buddhist ceremony has been held at a notorious former Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh, on the eve of a court verdict in the trial of the jail’s former head.

Hundreds of Cambodian survivors and relatives of those killed there gathered at the site in remembrance.

Thousands were tortured and executed at the S-21 detention centre during Pol Pot’s regime in the late 1970s.

The man known as Comrade Duch, the first of five Khmer Rouge figures to stand trial, is accused of crimes against humanity, torture and pre-meditated murder.

Chum Mey used his skills as an engineer to make himself indispensable to the jail and avoid being killed. “If the verdict is the maximum life imprisonment, I’ll be very happy and the survivors will be relieved,” he said.

During the trial Comrade Duch admitted supervising the torture and execution of thousands of prisoners at the S-21 jail. Later he converted to Christianity and became a lay pastor, but many Cambodians are sceptical of his apparent remorse.

S-21’s inmates were deemed the Khmer Rouge’s worst enemies. Only a handful including some children were found alive when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in 1979.

The prison’s victims were the tip of the iceberg. Across the country 1.7 million people – a quarter of the population – perished through starvation, disease, torture and execution.

The verdict will be the first ruling of the special court, much criticised for its bureaucracy and slow progress.

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