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Lights, camera, genocide!

A new TV show is rapidly extending the reach of the Khmer Rouge war crimes court to Cambodian households.

Sek O, 42, cries as she prays at her father's portrait during a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Aug. 31, 2009. The museum is at the site of the most notorious prison in Democratic Kampuchea, code-named S-21. (Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — When the former Khmer Rouge prison chief, Kaing Ghek Eav, first took the stand eight months ago, most Cambodians had scarce knowledge of the tribunal that was trying him. 

The notorious man — known best by his revolutionary name, Duch — stands accused of crimes against humanity for the medieval torture of 14,000 people at a secret prison code-named S-21 during the Khmer Rouge's reign from 1975 to 1979.

At first, 85 percent of Cambodians “had little or no knowledge” of the U.N.-backed trial that was 30 years in the making, according to a University of California at Berkeley’s Human Rights Center survey.

Outreach has stepped up considerably since the opening of testimony, though. Perhaps no development has been more effective in disseminating the often-baffling work of the tribunal than a new weekly television program. In a country of 14 million, where 85 percent of people live in rural areas, some 2 million Cambodians are tuning in to “Duch on Trial.”

Every Monday afternoon, along with fellow Cambodian journalist, Ung Chan Sophea, host Neth Pheaktra provides a sober summary and analysis of court testimony and the legal framework in which it is heard. Local analysts weigh in on the use of legal strategies by the lawyers and Duch.

“My relatives tell me, ‘You look so serious on TV,'” said Neth, whose program launched in April with British and U.S. funding. “We’re discussing the death of millions of compatriots, including many of my relatives, so it’s not a time to smile.”

The show plays clips of court testimony, including ghastly stories of men and women being bludgeoned, water-boarded and electrocuted before their execution, and of their babies being smashed against trees.

In total, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation and murder under the Khmer Rouge’s maniacal vision to transform the country into an agrarian utopia. For the some 5 million Cambodians who survived Khmer Rouge rule, the regime’s brutality remains deeply entrenched in their psyche.