Image: Senior Khmer Rouge regime member Kaing Guek Eav
ECCC via Reuters
Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch," showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
updated 7/26/2010 9:20:20 PM ET 2010-07-27T01:20:20

A war crimes tribunal sentenced the Khmer Rouge's chief jailer on Monday to a prison term that will see him serve less than half a day for every person killed at the notorious torture center he commanded.

Survivors expressed anger and disbelief that a key player in the genocide that wiped out a quarter of Cambodia's population could one day walk free — despite being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"I can't accept this," sobbed 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."

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the first major Khmer Rouge figure to face trial more than three decades after the "killing fields" regime tried to turn the country into a vast agrarian society — leading to the deaths of 1.7 million people.

As commander of the top secret Tuol Sleng prison — code-named S-21 — the 67-year-old Duch admitted to overseeing the torture and deaths of as many as 16,000 people.

He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but will spend only 19 in jail — 11 years were shaved off for time served and another five for illegal detention in a military prison.

"It is 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 her parents to the Khmer Rouge and has been working with other victims to find justice.

"It comes down to serving 11½ hours per life that he took," she said, adding that if prosecutors could get only such a lenient sentence in a case where the defendant admitted his guilt, they could expect even less in the upcoming trial of four senior Khmer Rouge figures.

The U.N.-backed tribunal is scheduled to try the group's top ideologist, 84-year-old Nuon Chea, its former head of state, Khieu Samphan, 79, and two other top leaders, both in their 80s, early next year. Unlike Duch, they have denied any guilt.

Several other major figures have died, including the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, in 1998.

Judges said that in handing down their verdict Monday, they took into consideration the historical context of the atrocities: The 1975-79 regime was the product of the Cold War times.

They also recognized that Duch — unlike any of the others in detention — was not in the Khmer Rouge's inner circle, had cooperated with the court and shown expressions of remorse, however "limited."

But they flatly rejected claims he was acting on orders from the top or that he was a "cog in the machine" who could not get out.

"In carrying out his functions, he showed a high degree of efficiency and zeal," the judges wrote. "He worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors."

They said he signed off on all executions and was often present when interrogators used torture to extract confessions, including pulling out prisoners' toenails, administering electric shocks, and waterboarding. Sometimes he even took part.

Duch (pronounced DOIK) revealed little emotion throughout the 77-day trial.

As the court handed down its sentence in a packed courtroom Monday, he stood rigidly and looked into the distance, his eyes occasionally shifting from side to side without making any contact.

"He tricked everybody," said Chum Mey, 79, one of just a few people sent to Tuol Sleng prison who survived. The key witness wiped 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."

The U.S., however, praised the verdict, calling it historic. "We applaud the commitment of the national and international judges for their comprehensive and independent work to uphold international standards of justice and due process in this case," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington.

Like many key players in the Khmer Rouge, Duch was an academic before he became a revolutionary. The former math teacher joined Pol Pot's movement in 1967, three years before the U.S. started carpet-bombing Cambodia to try to wipe out Northern Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong inside the border. By 1976, he was the trusted head of its ultimate killing machine, S-21.

After a Vietnamese invasion forced the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Duch fled, leaving behind thousands of documents and negatives at Tuol Sleng, once a secondary school.

He 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 in 1999 led to his arrest.

Duch has several times asked for forgiveness, even offering at one point to face a public stoning. But his surprise request on the final day of the trial to be acquitted and freed left many wondering if his contrition was sincere.

Though the tribunal — more than 10 years and $100 million in the making — 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 possible interference by current leaders — including the prime minister — who were once low-level members of the Khmer Rouge. It also sought to limit the number of suspects being tried — rather, some say, than implicate its own ranks.

The second trial, or "Case Two," is more complicated legally and politically. None of the four defendants has shown any sign they may break ranks or speak openly, and some experts said Duch's relatively light sentence could be an incentive for him to testify.

"I hope the Duch verdict will encourage him to participate as a useful witness in the second case," said John Ciorciari of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

"At this stage, there is little sign that the Case No. 2 defendants will break ranks, speak openly and express contrition. They are considerably older than Duch and may have less to gain from a modest sentence given their shorter life expectancies," he said.

More than 1,000 villagers showed up for Monday's verdict, some traveling more than 180 miles (300 kilometers) by bus.

Also present was New Zealander Rob Hamill, the brother of one of a handful of Westerners killed by the Khmer Rouge. Kerry Hamill, then 28, was sailing across Asia when his yacht was captured in Cambodian waters in 1978. He was taken to Tuol 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."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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