A UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia increased on Friday the sentence of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief to life imprisonment, drawing praise from survivors of the brutal regime who feared he might one day walk free.
The Supreme Court of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the Khmer Rouge trial is officially called, handed Kaing Guek Eav the punishment for his role in the deaths of thousands of people under the ultra-Maoist regime from 1975-1979 at Phnom Penh’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21.
The 69-year-old former warden was officially sentenced in 2010 to 30 years in prison following the only verdict issued by the ECCC since its 2003 formation, but he had already served more than 12 years in military detention. Survivors had demanded a stiffer penalty, fearing that he might be freed within his lifetime.
“The Supreme Court has dismissed the defense lawyers’ appeal,” Judge Kong Srim told the courtroom. “The court has decided to punish Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to life in prison.”
The judge referred to Duch’s crimes as “undoubtedly among the worst in recorded human history,” deserving “the highest penalty available.”
He said his initial punishment did not “reflect the gravity of the crimes” at the S-21 “factory of death” in the late 70s.
A born-again Christian who hid for two decades in Cambodia's countryside before his arrest in 1999, Duch had appealed the sentence, saying he was only following orders in his capacity as prison chief. But prosecutors had also appealed, claiming that his punishment was not severe enough.
A life sentence is the maximum penalty available under the law for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which set forth standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of the victims of war.
The tough new sentence pleased former prisoners of S-21 and other survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime who gathered at the court’s public gallery to witness the final chapter in Duch’s case.
Praise for verdict
Former S-21 Prisoner Chum Mey, 81, said he was satisfied with the result, adding that he had been unable to sleep Thursday night in anticipation of the appeal outcome.
“I feel at peace now. I am happy with result of case file 001. I think the court has given me justice. [Duch] deserved the punishment,” he said.
Another former prisoner, Bo Meng, echoed Chum Mey’s approval.
“The punishment is fair for his mistakes,” he said. “I am 100 percent in agreement with the verdict.”
National co-prosecutor Chea Leang told reporters after the verdict announcement that his team was also pleased with the verdict.
“I think justice has prevailed [that Duch will not be freed after 30 years] and impunity has been eliminated,” she said. “These two aspects are very important for the court.”
France and Japan, co-chairs to the donor group Friends of the ECCC, also welcomed the verdict.
“The donors welcome the historic closure of the first trial of a Khmer Rouge official at the ECCC,” the two countries said in a joint statement.
“This long awaited judicial decision is an important recognition of the suffering of the Cambodian people and all the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. It is a significant step on the road towards justice and national reconciliations for all Cambodians.”
With the closure of Duch’s case, the ECCC can turn its full attention to a second trial currently underway which involves the Khmer Rouge's four most senior surviving leaders.
Prosecutors contend that 1.7-2.2 million people died of disease, exhaustion, starvation and execution under the Khmer Rouge, which drove people out of towns and cities and abolished money, schools and religion, and many former members of the regime have yet to be brought to justice.
But the ECCC, which has spent nearly U.S. $150 million since its creation and delivered only one verdict, has been mired in allegations of political interference and bribery which have led many observers to believe planned third and fourth cases will not proceed.
The tribunal is struggling to attract funds from donor countries and hundreds of Cambodian employees are currently not receiving their salaries.
The UN is also at odds with the Cambodian government over its choice of Swiss judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet as international co-investigating judge for the prosecutions.
Kasper-Ansermet was meant to replace German judge Siegfried Blunk who resigned last October, citing political interference. Blunk had blocked moves to pursue the two cases without giving an explanation.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the Tribunal beyond the second trial.
Reported by Maly Leng and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.