The Khmer Rouge’s top jailer was sentenced to 30 years in prison for overseeing the “shocking and heinous” murder and torture of more than 12,000 inmates at the genocidal Cambodian regime’s Tuol Sleng prison.
The verdict by the United Nations-backed tribunal on Kang Kek Ieu, better known as Duch, marks the first conviction in a 13-year effort to bring to book the leaders of a regime blamed for the deaths of a quarter of the population. The converted school in the capital, Phnom Penh, was the most notorious prison in a network targeting the educated elite as the movement tried to create an agrarian society starting at Year Zero.
“I could never forget the suffering that I received until the day that I die,” Chum Mey, who had his toenails ripped out and was one of only a handful of survivors of the jail, told the court. “Once justice can be done, then I would feel better.”
Many Cambodians are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979, with a third of the country’s 14.2 million people under the age of 15. The regime’s leaders lived freely in Cambodia for years until the government requested United Nations assistance in 1997 to start a tribunal to seek justice for the estimated 1.7 million deaths they caused.
Four older and more senior leaders are also in custody and facing trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, including former head of state Khieu Samphan, 78, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, 84, his wife Ieng Thirith, 78, and Nuon Chea, 84, the movement’s second-in-command. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and military chief Ta Mok have died.
Those trials have “larger implications and involve larger interests” because they may expose the roles of China, Thailand and the U.S. in the Khmer Rouge era and entangle members of the current government, Theary Seng said. She called Duch’s case “a cake walk” by comparison.
The court found Duch guilty of charges involving pre-meditated murder, torture, rape and enslavement.
Fifty-five witnesses testified at the trial, including victims who talked about how prison officials tortured them with electric shocks, suffocation and beatings. Guards smashed babies against tree trunks and forced prisoners to eat feces, according to testimony during the trial.
Judges noted “character of the offenses, which were perpetrated against at least 12,273 victims over a prolonged period,” according to the verdict, read by Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn.
“The sentence should make it inconceivable for a 67-year-old man to again walk the streets free for even one hour,” said Theary Seng, whose parents were killed under the Khmer Rouge and who now runs a human rights group.
At the start of the trial in March 2009, Duch accepted blame and apologized to survivors and victims’ families. Cooperating with the court was the “only remedy that can help me to relieve all of the sorrow of the crimes that I have committed,” the former math teacher, who converted to Christianity in 1996, told the court according to a transcript.
Judges reduced Duch’s 35-year sentence because he was unlawfully detained from 1999 to 2007, according to a live broadcast of the proceedings. Prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence.
Anything less than a 40-year sentence “would be a completely and utterly inadequate response,” William Smith, one of the prosecutors, told judges at the final court hearing in November. Duch has been detained since his arrest in 1999.
“The chamber considers that a reduction of the above sentence of five years is appropriate given the violation of the Kaing Kek Iev’s rights by this illegal detention” from 1999 to 2007, the verdict said.
The Khmer Rouge took power after a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War stirred discontent in the countryside against General Lon Nol’s coup-installed government. Led by Pol Pot, the regime evacuated Phnom Penh to put people to work on farms and closed all schools, universities and monasteries. Money, markets and private property were abolished.
The regime collapsed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and took the capital. The U.S. and China backed the Khmer Rouge to continue representing Cambodia at the United Nations, providing the regime legitimacy until 1993, when the first post-conflict elections were held.
The landmark ruling may help boost the image of Southeast Asia’s second-poorest country, which has encouraged foreign investment to increase incomes that average $1.90 per day. The government aims to open a stock exchange within the year after a decade in which annual economic growth averaged 8 percent.
Cambodia attracted $593 million in foreign direct investment last year, a 10th that of neighboring Thailand, according to the Asian Development Bank. Chevron Corp., the second-biggest U.S. oil company, and BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining company, have investments in the country.
The U.S. this month co-hosted the first large-scale military drill in Cambodia involving field training for peacekeeping. Beijing provided Cambodia with 257 military trucks last month after the U.S. halted a similar shipment in April to protest the deportation of 20 Uigher asylum seekers to China.