The Associated Press
Monday, July 26, 2010
A war crimes tribunal convicted and sentenced the Khmer Rouge's chief jailer Monday for overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people, in the first verdict involving a senior member of the "killing fields" regime that devastated a generation of Cambodians.
Victims and their relatives burst into tears after hearing that a 35-year sentence given to Kaing Guek Eav _ also known as Duch _ had been whittled down to just 19 after taking into account time already served and other factors. That effectively means the 67-year-old could one day walk free.
"I can't accept this," said Saodi Ouch, 46, shaking so hard she could hardly talk. "My family died ... my older sister, my older brother. I'm the only one left."
The U.N.-backed tribunal _ 10 years and $100 million in the making _ has sought to find justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution from 1975-79.
The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are awaiting trial. Some legal experts said the tribunal may have acted more leniently with Duch, because they were saving the worst punishment for members of the regime's inner clique.
Duch, who headed Tuol Sleng, a secret detention center for the worst "enemies" of the state, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
During the 77-day proceedings, Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people who passed through the prison's gates. Torture used to extract confessions included pulling out prisoners' toenails, administering electric shocks and waterboarding.
The court said at least 100 people bled to death in medieval-style medical experiments.
Unlike the other defendants, Duch (pronounced DOIK) has several times expressed remorse, even offering at one point to face a public stoning and to allow victims to visit him in jail. But his surprise request on the final day of the trial to be acquitted and freed, left many wondering if his contrition was sincere.
"He tricked everybody," said Chum Mey, 79, one of just a few people sent to Toul Sleng who survived. The key witness wiped water from his eyes. "See ... my tears drop down again. I feel like I was victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I'm a victim once again."
Duch showed no emotion as he listened Monday to the judge talk about the court's findings.
Nil Nonn, the chief justice, said the jailer was often present during interrogations at Tuol Sleng and signed off on all the tortures and executions, sometimes taking part himself. He said the court had rejected arguments that he was acting on orders from the top because he feared for his own life.
"He worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors," said the judge.
When the verdict was read out, Duch stood up and looked straight ahead, his eyes shifting but showing no emotion.
The prosecution and defense have one month to appeal.
A former math teacher, Duch joined Pol Pot's movement in 1967. Ten years later, he was the trusted head of its ultimate killing machine, S-21, which became the code name for Tuol Sleng.
After a Vietnamese invasion forced the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 after a bloody, four-year reign, Duch disappeared for almost two decades, living under various aliases in northwestern Cambodia, where he had converted to Christianity. His chance discovery by a British journalist led to his arrest in May 1999.
Though the tribunal has been credited with helping the traumatized nation speak out publicly for the first time about atrocities committed three decades ago, it has been criticized as well.
The government insisted Cambodians be on the panel of judges, opening the door for political interference. It also sought to limit the number of suspects being tried _ fearing, some say, it would implicate its own ranks. The prime minister and other current leaders were once low-level members of the Khmer Rouge.
Though most people doubted Duch would get the maximum life imprisonment, few expected he'd get less than 35 years in jail. The decision to shave 16 for time already served and illegal detention in a military prison, means he has 18 years and 10 months left.
More than 1,000 villagers showed up for the verdict, some traveling more than 180 miles (300 kilometers) by bus.
"It's just unacceptable to have a man who killed thousands of people serving just 19 years," said Theary Seng, a human rights lawyer who lost both of her parents and has been working with others to find justice.
"Now no one is going to have the energy to look at the second case."
An international civil rights lawyer and associate fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs also criticized the court's "unimaginative" reparation order, which was limited to simply publishing the judgement. Mahdev Mohan said the U.N.-backed tribunal could have ordered Duch to build a memorial to the victims and to do other work to deter future crimes against humanity.
Among those at Monday's verdict was New Zealander Rob Hamill, the brother of one of a handful of Westerners killed by the Khmer Rouge. Kerry, then 28, was sailing across Asia when his yacht was captured in Cambodian waters in 1978. He was taken to Toul Sleng and killed.
Another brother committed suicide months later, and their mother died seven years ago.
"All I can say is my family, who are no longer here to see justice, would not want to see this man set free, even if it's in 19 years time," said Hamill, 46, struggling to contain his emotion. "It's reality but I'm not happy... he should not be a free man."
Associated Press Writer Cheang Sopheng contributed to this report from Jakarta.