By DOUGLAS GILLISON / PHNOM PENH Douglas Gillison / Phnom Penh – 1 hr 42 mins ago
Cambodians hoping for a punishment to match their suffering expected more. In its first verdict, the U.N.-backed tribunal established in 2006 to try the leaders and decision makers of the Pol Pot regime convicted the regime's secret police chief of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentencing him on Monday to 35 years in prison for the murders of as many of 14,000 people.
But in an irony few victims will appreciate, the court allowed the accused, Kaing Guek Eav, 67, who is best known by his revolutionary name "Duch," a five-year reduction for violations of his human rights due to his excessive pretrial detention by Cambodian authorities, which lasted eight years. In addition, Duch - a Christian convert who, during his nine-month trial admitted to ordering the executions of 160 children in a single day in June 1977 - was credited for the 11 years he has served since his arrest in 1999. Only 19 years of his sentence remain, and if Cambodian law is applied, he could, in theory, be eligible for parole in just years 12 years. (See photos of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge.)
In the 500-seat public gallery, which was filled to capacity, the largest of any courtroom in the world, there was uncomprehending silence as Judge Nil Nonn, the Trial Chamber's president, read out the judgment and the arithmetic of the sentence's reductions.
Later, outside the courthouse, Chum Mey, 79, one of the handful who survived internment at S-21 and who lost his family to the regime, said he was outraged. "I will never accept such a decision," he said. "I am not happy with this court. My tears have dropped twice already because it's not what I wished." (Read a brief history of the Khmer Rouge.)
War crimes tribunals are known for punishing mass atrocities with sentences that resemble those given to criminals at ordinary courts. For his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacres, Bosnian Serb Major General Radislav Krstic was also sentenced by the Yugoslavia tribunal to 35 years for the massacres of 7,000 to 8,000 men and boys, causing the lead prosecutor to calculate that this amounted to 1.825 days in prison per victim. (Comment on this story.)
In Duch's case, the prosecution in November had recommended 40 years and said following the verdict that they were considering an appeal. "It certainly provides a penalty that the Cambodian public will appreciate in the fact that it's a custodial sentence," said William Smith, international deputy co-prosecutor, who noted that the defense had improbably asked for an acquittal at the very end of trial. "We'll be reviewing the judgment, reviewing the findings of fact and seeing whether or not there have been any errors made."
In the service of the Khmer Rouge leadership, Duch committed crimes that became emblematic of the atrocities of his regime, though they were only one part of the wave of criminality that convulsed Cambodia in 1975 and that prosecutors say left between 1.7 million and 2.2 million dead through starvation, overwork, disease and execution.
Pol Pot and the leaders of the communist insurgency that seized Phnom Penh in 1975 put Duch in the service of their implacable, paranoid belief that secret enemies were hiding everywhere. Duch, a former schoolteacher turned chief of Cambodia's secret police, known by the codename S-21, into a killing machine, sacrificing men, women and children to his superiors' foregone conclusions. Under torture, thousands were forced to invent fantastic confessions of treachery for the CIA, the KGB or Vietnamese agents, though interrogators knew these were false.
By the time the S-21 detention center, located in Phnom Penh, was abandoned as invading Vietnamese forces took the capital in January 1979, the mass murder had spread to nearly every zone, district, ministry and military unit, capturing Duch's own childhood schoolteacher, his brother-in-law, his predecessor as chief of S-21, the minister of finance, the minister of commerce, 5,000 government officials, 4,500 military personnel, 400 Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, a handful of captured Westerners and 200 of S-21's own staff.
At Duch's detailed instruction, methods of torture included electrical shock, the force-feeding of human excrement, waterboarding, the removal of fingernails, the insertion of needles under the fingernails, suffocation and beating. Vivisections were performed on live prisoners and the court determined that 100 people were executed by being bled to death. Pending their executions, semi-nude detainees were shackled in rows or kept in tiny brick cells on a starvation diet. (See the 25 crimes of the century.)
Duch remains part of a second case that includes four other suspects accused of the entirety of the regime's crimes. Though indictments in that case have yet to be handed down, the prosecutions promise to involve the largest number of victim of any trials since the Nazi war crimes trials at Nuremberg.
At the guidance of his French defense lawyer, Francois Roux, Duch began his trial last year hoping to receive a lesser sentence by confessing to his crimes, promising to accept any punishment the court would impose and apologizing to his victims. But in a shock reversal, Duch told the court in November, "Release me," and his Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, who boasts of close ties to the family of Prime Minster Hun Sen, has vowed to appeal.
Roux was fired earlier this month by Duch, who told the judges he had lost confidence in the attorney, an acclaimed litigator who won the first ever acquittal at the Rwanda tribunal and now directs the defense office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an organization which collected and preserved much of the evidentiary record used by the tribunal, said that in the capital, the verdict had been met by many with disbelief, with one man saying he wanted to punch his television screen. "I think they don't see any humanity in him at all," he said. "He was a living devil."
Chhang said he believed the verdict had begun a "healthy" process of reconciling Cambodians with their history. "Any amount of years will not satisfy anybody," he said. "It is a difficult lesson for [Cambodians] to learn but it will take time."
With reporting by Kuch Naren / Phnom Penh