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Former Khmer Rouge's prison chief found guilty of war crimes

The Cambodian war crimes tribunal has handed down its verdict in the case against Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch. He was the head of the Khmer Rouge's most important torture centre known as S-21.

Duch appears at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh

Duch appears at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh

The UN-backed tribunal on Monday ruled that Comrade Duch, the former head of the Khmer Rouge's torture and execution centre known as S-21, is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Duch was sentenced to 35 years in jail, but will probably serve just 19. That is because he has already spent 11 years in jail awaiting trial. He will get a discount of a further five years because he was held illegally without trial since his arrest in 1999. Duch has 90 days in which to file an appeal.

In the judgment the court said the offences Duch perpetrated against at least 12,273 victims were "shocking and heinous", adding that they warranted a lengthy jail term. But presiding judge Nil Nonn, who read the verdict, said Duch's cooperation, acceptance of responsibility, and limited expressions of remorse were mitigating factors.

Cambodian Buddhist nuns and monks line up in front of the tribunal ahead of the verdict

Buddhist nuns and monks line up in front of the tribunal

Dismay over ruling

The families of many of his victims condemned the sentence. Some were so distraught they left the court compound immediately after the verdict was delivered.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who lost family members to the Khmer Rouge regime, said 19 years was simply insufficient for the scale and quantity of crimes Duch had committed. "That is not acceptable. What is unacceptable is to envision him as a free man even for one minute in the public sphere," she said.

Her anger was reflected by many, including two of S-21's survivors – Bou Meng and Chum Mey, both of whom last year gave moving testimony.

S-21 survivor Chum Mey, right, outside the court hall

S-21 survivor Chum Mey, right, outside the court hall

Theary Seng said the 67-year-old defendant – a man with literally thousands of lives on his conscience – should have gone to jail for the rest of his life. "Fourteen thousand lives were lost there, and he should be receiving many life sentences."

Horrors of S-21

Duch's nine-month trial, which ended in November, heard how S-21 prison was a place where every one of as many as 20,000 people sent there was deemed guilty of treason.

No more than a dozen inmates survived, and that was solely because they were prisoners with skills Duch deemed useful, such as painting portraits of the regime's leader Pol Pot, or the ability to fix machines.

S-21's function was to torture suspected enemies of the revolution, extract confessions, and then kill them. Those implicated in the confessions would in turn be rounded up, and the cycle resumed. Duch's signature was on thousands of execution orders, which contained the phrase 'smash them'.

A Khmer Rouge victim weeps after the sentencing of Duch

A Khmer Rouge victim weeps after the sentencing of Duch

Importance of judgment

Heather Ryan from the Soros-funded Open Society Justice Initiative spent much of last year observing the trial, and was in court Monday. She acknowledged that aspects of the judgment were upsetting to surviving victims and the families of those who were murdered.

But she said Monday was important as it showed the Cambodian people that those guilty of serious crimes did not have impunity. "So all in all I feel satisfied and sort of inspired by what happened. There are details that I think people will be unhappy with – particularly the reparations award for the victims."

That was a reference to the decision that ruled out almost every suggestion made by lawyers for the civil parties. The lawyers said judges even rejected building a memorial inside the grounds of S-21 that would carry the name of every known victim of Duch's prison.

Although many people were angry and disappointed with what they see as a lenient verdict, it remains the case that Duch now stands in a reviled group internationally. Importantly for Cambodia, Duch's is the first conviction on international war crimes charges of any member of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country between 1975 and 1979 leaving an estimated two million dead.

As the Cambodian prosecutor said afterwards, Duch's sentence provides legal recognition of the pain endured by the families of the victims and sends a message of hope to all Cambodians for a better future.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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