PHNOM PENH—Victims of the former Khmer Rouge chief of Cambodia's infamous Tuol Sleng prison lashed out Monday at a prison term handed to him by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, saying the 67-year-old who presided over the torture and killing of thousands could still one day walk free.
Kaing Guek Eav—known by his Khmer Rouge alias, Duch—was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity after a trial lasting 77 days in the Cambodian capital.
The court sentenced him to serve 19 years in prison, or 35 years less 16 years already served. Prosecutors had sought 40 years. There is no death penalty in Cambodia. Duch is the first Khmer Rouge figure to stand trial in connection with atrocities committed by a regime that has become synonymous with mass murder.
Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of thousands who passed through his S-21 Tuol Sleng secret detention center reserved for the biggest perceived "enemies" of Pol Pot's communist regime.
The tribunal heard how torture was used to extract "confessions," included pulling out prisoners' toenails, electric shocks, and bleeding to death.
Chief justice Nil Nonn said the court had rejected arguments that Duch was acting on orders from above and out of fear 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," the judge told reporters.
The verdict drew more than 1,000 Cambodians from outlying regions of the country, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles (kms) by bus.
The mood outside the court was one of shocked injustice.
While Duch was sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment on paper, court officials cut 16 years from the total to take into account time already served and illegal detention in a military prison.
Duch now has 18 years and 10 months left to serve in prison, and could once again become a free man.
"I can't accept this," Saodi Ouch, 46, told the Associated Press.
Shaking all over, she said: "My family died ... my older sister, my older brother. I'm the only one left."
Duch showed no emotion as he listened to the judges read their decision and announce the verdict and sentence.
Chum Mey, 79, a key witness in the case against Duch, and one of just a few people sent to Toul Sleng who survived, said the outcome had left him with no sense of redress.
"He tricked everybody," he said. "I feel like I was victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I'm a victim once again."
It has taken 10 years and U.S. $100 million to convene the tribunal, which aims to bring some measure of justice for the estimated 1.7 million people who died in Cambodia of starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions, and execution from 1975-79.
As the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) prepared to issue its ruling, 79-year-old survivor Chum Mey, who now works as a tour guide at the prison museum, demanded that Duch be moved to a common jail from his current holding cell.
“He eats three meals a day. He sleeps on a mattress with a fan and has a TV to watch. This is an international prison. Why is it is like this?” Chum Mey asked.
“I have never been in an international prison. When I was in [Tuol Sleng prison] I was tortured by electric shock. [Duch] is so lucky—getting three meals a day. If that is what prison life is like, then I would like to be in jail too,” he said.
Human rights criticism
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, sharply criticized elements of the trial.
"Sentencing Duch is a step in the right direction, but it shouldn't be confused with real justice, which requires vigorous prosecutions—not just of the other four people who are awaiting trial, but the full scope of the senior leadership, free of the kinds of obstruction and interference that we've seen, ranging from financial corruption to political interference in how trials proceed. That’s what the Cambodian people deserve," she said.
While trying everyone implicated in Khmer Rouge atrocities is impractical, she said, allowing "the political leadership of a country, and one that is notoriously resistant to any concept of due process or impartial judicial proceedings, to dictate who does—and more importantly, who doesn't—get tried is simply unacceptable."
Former supreme leader Pol Pot died a free man in 1998, while four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are awaiting trial.
The prosecution and defense in Duch's case have one month to appeal.
Duch, who was once a math teacher, joined Pol Pot's movement in 1967, going on to become the trusted head of S-21, which became the code name for Tuol Sleng, a decade later.
Duch disappeared for almost two decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and was only discovered by a journalist while living in northwestern Cambodia in May 1999.
Duch commanded his lieutenants to force confessions of espionage from prisoners before they were led to a killing field, stunned with a blow to the base of the neck, and slaughtered as they lay prone, according to the testimony of a former prison guard.
Other guards have testified that some inmates had plastic bags tied over their heads while others were bled to death.
Original reporting by Yun Samean for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated from the Khmer by Sok Ry Sum. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Additional reporting in Washington by Richard Finney. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.