PHNOM PENH - Foreign prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison, New Zealander Kerry Hamill possibly among them, were burned in the streets of Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was told yesterday.

The public trial of the head of the torture centre and prison Kaing Guek Eav or Duch before New Zealand Judge Dame Silvia Cartwright, French judge Jean-Marc Lavergne and Cambodian judges Nil Nonn, Ya Sokhan, and Thou Mony began yesterday, but only for three hours after time was taken to make rulings on defence objections.

The trial is the first of senior leaders in the Khmer Rouge regime - under which 1.7 million Cambodians died - to be heard before the UN-backed dual international Cambodian Court.

After giving the court a few biographical details, including that he worked in China after the regime fell, Duch, 66, sat in the dock facing the judge's panel and flanked by the defence and prosecution on either side.

From time to time he took notes and when his image appeared on the screen in front of him - also projected in the auditorium - he looked uncomfortable.

On the other side of thick bullet proof glass survivors and other Cambodians sat along with a large contingent of foreign media and observers.

The bulk of the day was spent hearing the indictment against Duch.

Mr Hamill, brother of rower Rob Hamill, ended up at S-21 when the yacht he and friends were sailing strayed into Cambodian waters in August 1978.

One crewman, Canadian Stuart Glass, was shot while Mr Hamill and Briton John Dewhirst were taken for interrogation.

Mr Hamill wrote a 4000 word confession about involvement with the CIA, a typical story for many of the thousands incarcerated then executed.

Documented figures put Tuol Sleng's toll at 12,380 but other reports put it between 14,000 and 17,000.

At least 10 foreigners were among the toll. Inmates were interrogated and tortured before being taken to a killing field for execution.

Others died of their injuries, disease or starvation.

The court was told that a witness twice saw foreigners being burned in main streets in Phnom Penh along with rubber tyres.

The witness' evidence is yet to be presented to the court.

The court also heard of macabre medical experiments where over a thousand inmates had blood taken which was given to hospitals. Sometimes the inmates died of blood loss.

Inmates were also subjected to live dissections and experiments with drugs.

After the lunch break the defence requested to be allowed to make balancing claims about Duch's character. He is now a Christian.

After a 30 minute adjournment that was refused.

The court rose at 3pm as the prosecution did not want to shorten its opening statements and the court declined to run over the scheduled 5pm finish. The trial will resume at 9am today (3pm NZST).

Amnesty International researcher Brittis Edman said outside court it was disappointing the court sat for such a short period given some people had travelled far for the hearing, some only to attend one day.

"There are lots of people who have travelled far... it's quite a lot of money."

She hoped victims would get to have their say during the trial and that problems could be worked through.

"The role of the victims remains very, very crucial," she said.

However the start of the trial was a first step given it took 30 years to hold it.

"First of the fact the trial is starting today does give hope... it was a short start, but it was a start and that's something to acknowledge."

Anthropologist Prof Alex Hinton, who has written a book about genocide under the Khmer Rouge, said the day was important as the historical facts had been put on the record.

He said the blood letting of prisoners encapsulated the dehumanisation of prisoners.

"I think it was emotional... it affects anyone who hears something about people being burned in tyres, having their blood drained out of their bodies, being tortured in all sorts of different ways... you can imagine the impact that it has upon Cambodians after what they've gone through."

Duch faces charges including crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Convention and violations of the Cambodian penal code including premeditated murder.

The hearing continues.

Maggie Tait travelled to Cambodia with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- NZPA