Cambodia's Khmer Rouge court has opened its first public hearing, in a landmark moment for a country trying to overcome its brutal past.

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Judges will hear an appeal by former regime prison chief Duch against his detention by the UN-backed tribunal.

“This first hearing means so much,” tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath told AFP.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, allegedly oversaw the torture and extermination of 16,000 men, women and children at the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng prison during the regime's 1975-79 rule over Cambodia.

He was arrested by the tribunal in July, becoming the first top Khmer Rouge cadre to be detained, and charged with crimes against humanity pending further investigation of the case against him.

Lengthy detention

But Duch's lawyers are expected to argue that years spent imprisoned without trial by another court — he was first arrested by the government in 1999 — are grounds for his release, legal documents show.

In his first public appearance since he was seized by the government, Duch, 65, entered the court chambers escorted by two security guards.

Wearing a crisp white short-sleeved shirt, he appeared in good health, quickly walking to his chair to sit with his lawyers as dozens of photographers jockeyed to take his picture.

Duch later stood, pressing the palms of his hands together in a prayer gesture, as he answered questions from the judges about his background.

Before the hearing opened, Duch was driven by bullet-proof vehicle from the tribunal's detention facility to the court house, just 50 metres away, Reach Sambath said.

Dozens of security personnel flanked the vehicle, highlighting the heavy security that has surrounded the proceedings.

In all, five top regime leaders are now facing charges at the tribunal for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

Up to two million people are believed to have been executed or died of starvation and overwork during the communist regime's rule.

Khmer court opens first public hearing