MARK COLVIN: Some history's been made in South East Asia today.
Some estimates say a million and a half people died, directly or indirectly, at the hands of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. Today for the first time one of those responsible was sentenced to jail.
In a joint international/Cambodian court this afternoon the notorious jailer of Tuol Sleng prison, the man known as Comrade Duch, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He'd confessed to being responsible for the murder and torture of more than 12,000 people. But the sentence was five years less than the prosecutors wanted. The judges reduced it because of "mitigating circumstances". That brought fury from the crowd outside the Phnom Penh court.
Conor Duffy is in Phnom Phen and joins me now.
MARK COLVIN: Conor, what were the mitigating circumstances for the deaths of 12,000 people?
CONOR DUFFY: Well it's hard to think that there could be any mitigating circumstances at all, Mark, but the reason that the judges gave was that Comrade Duch had been illegally arrested by the Cambodian military back in the late '90s.
Now he's already served 11 years in jail which is being discounted from the sentence of 30 years. So people, in effect, are almost saying that you know they doubled dipped on this, that he's getting time off for the time he's served and he's getting an extra five years reduced because of this.
Now this was a packed courtroom today, Mark, as you can imagine. It was crammed with people who had lost loved ones. Of course there was a huge international media contingent and it was before the eyes of the world that President Nil Nonn calmly and dispassionately listed some of the brutal atrocities of Duch and it's hard to see how there could be mitigating circumstances for any of them.
These are crimes we're talking about like raping women with sticks, murder, torture and the execution of thousands.
The judge also discussed a suggestion from Duch's defence team that, you know, he had just been following orders and shouldn't be held to account. Duch himself wanted to be acquitted. The judge said that that was not (inaudible) and in any case Duch had shown quite an enthusiasm for his work and had trained others in his brutal methods.
MARK COLVIN: What was Duch's reaction to the sentence?
CONOR DUFFY: He was completely impassive. He has been completely impassive throughout the trial, I understand, and it was no different today. He didn't raise an eyebrow. He even, as he was lead away to the docks, he remained quiet.
And now there's a big question over exactly where Duch is going to serve his sentence because there are fears for his safety. So Cambodian authorities are now juggling with how they deal with that.
MARK COLVIN: Well he's 67 so it's- after 19 years it is possible that he actually will walk out a free man. What did the crowd outside think of that?
CONOR DUFFY: That was something, Mark, that absolutely infuriated a huge number of people there. There were people there who had lost their parents, brothers, who had been tortured in Khmer Rouge prisons.
There were, many of them were crying, visibly emotional and I recorded a short interview with a prominent Cambodian woman, Theary Seng, who lost both her parents and I think this will give you a little bit of a flavour of just how strong the feeling is about this.
(Except from interview)
CONOR DUFFY: And as this news sort of spreads out through Cambodia, how do you think other people are going to react?
THEARY SENG: There's already a collective shock and a collective revolt at the verdict and this shock and revolt will spread and will imbed the cynicism that is already very much in society. You know we are very distrusting, or very mistrusting people, because of the fears which lingers so heavily here.
So this has only imbed and created further cynicism in our society.
CONOR DUFFY: And does this add further insult to the great injury that you and many other people suffered here?
THEARY SENG: Oh, yes. It's a major insult. It's inexpressible, the insult. It's a slap to the face of the survivors that a person who killed 14,000 lives, took 14,000 lives is now only serving 19 years, which comes down to effectively serving 11 hours per life.
(End of interview)
MARK COLVIN: Theary Seng speaking to Conor Duffy outside the courtroom there.
So this was an extraordinary injury to the whole country. I think one fifth of the population died directly or indirectly because of Pol Pot and his cohorts like Comrade Duch. Is it a healed country? Is it ever going to be a healed country?
CONOR DUFFY: Well it certainly isn't at the moment, Mark, and I think as you heard from that short interview there, the anger and the pain is still so fresh among many Cambodians. This international court was supposed to help that and judging on the Duch verdict it's still got a long way to go.
There is another trial that's due to start next year which is the foremost senior remaining members of Pol Pot's regime that are still alive today. Although Prime Minister, Hun Sen, from Cambodia has said that he doesn't want that trial to go ahead because it could lead to civil war.
The court itself is broke and struggling for money. The trial of Duch alone cost $100 million. So, look in terms of healing and Cambodia moving on, there's a huge way to go and perhaps this case Number Two, as it's known, which is due to start next year may go some way to getting there.
MARK COLVIN: Conor Duffy in Phnom Phen. Thank you very much.