Decades after the Khmer Rouge was run out of power, an international tribunal has sentenced the former head of an infamous prison to life, calling his crimes against the Cambodian people "shocking and heinous."
Cambodia's United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal has sentenced notorious jailor Duch to life in prison, describing his crimes as "among the worst in recorded human history."
In a ruling handed down Friday, judges in Cambodia's United Nations-backed war crimes court dismissed the appeal of a notorious Khmer Rouge jailer, saying he should spend his life in prison for the "shocking and heinous" crimes committed at the S-21 torture center.
Duch, born Kaing Guek Eav, served as chairman of the primary school-turned-prison during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule of terror.
In July 2010, the tribunal convicted Duch for crimes against humanity. But his 35-year sentence, which was reduced by 11 years for time already served and another five years for his illegal detention prior to the trial, angered activists and regime survivors.
On Friday, the wiry 69-year-old looked on impassively as judges detailed the conditions at the S-21 "factory of death" where at least 12,272 perceived "enemies" of the Khmer Rouge regime were sent for interrogation and subsequently executed. Only a handful survived.
'An affront to all of humanity'
"Kaing Guek Eav's crimes were an affront to all of humanity, in particular to the Cambodian people, inflicting incurable pain on them," Judge Kong Srim said. "They deserve the highest penalty available."
Prosecutors, who had sought a harsher term for Duch, praised the verdict. "We can say that justice has now been served after more than 30 years," Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang told reporters. "To us and to the victims, this is a great success."
Speaking to reporters after Friday's hearing, Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, hailed the closure of the case. "I think this is an important step towards justice and reconciliation for the people of Cambodia," Rapp said. "It was an extremely grave series of crimes for which this individual was convicted."
Some observers, however, were critical of the sentence, which they argued did not take into account the mitigating circumstances of Duch's apparent contrition during his trial, nor his eight-year spell in illegal detention following his arrest in 1999.
Clair Duffy, a tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the overturning of Duch's original conviction, which included a five-year sentence reduction as a remedy for his illegal detention, was clearly wrong.
"His fundamental rights were violated by his illegal detention for eight years, and this judgment doesn't recognize that at all," she said.
Rupert Abbot, a researcher with Amnesty International, said the closure of Duch's case would help Cambodia "draw a line" under such a tragic part of its history, but would set a poor example for the domestic courts, where illegal pre-trial detention is routine. "The fact that that remedy has been overturned is very disappointing," he said.
Still, for some survivors of the regime, the increase in Duch's sentence was a long-awaited recognition of victims' suffering. "Those who are murderers must be tried," said Bou Meng, 70, one of the few to survive S-21 prison. "Even though I lost my wife under the Khmer Rouge regime, I feel [the verdict] gives me and my wife's soul justice."
'This is not over'
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge crimes, said that ultimately the verdict would help "set the victims free" but that it was only one stop on the long road towards reconciliation. "This must be a reminder that we should come to a day when this cannot happen [again]," he said. "This is not over."
Duch was the first to be tried by the UN-backed genocide tribunal
Duch's case was the first to be concluded against surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In just four years, the radical regime - led by "Brother No 1" Pol Pot - emptied Cambodia's cities and turned the country into a vast labor camp in its bid to create a communitarian utopia. An estimated 1.7 million people - more than a quarter of Cambodia's population - died from execution, starvation and overwork.
Three of the most senior Khmer Rouge - leading ideologue Nuon Chea, 85, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 80 - are currently on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Author: Sebastian Strangio
Editor: Anne Thomas