PHNOM PENH // A UN-backed tribunal sentenced a senior member of the Khmer Rouge to 35 years in prison today in its first verdict three decades after the Maoist "Killing Fields" revolution tore Cambodia apart.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was found guilty of murder and torture, and crimes against humanity for running Tuol Sleng prison, a converted school that symbolised the horrors of the ultra-communist regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths in 1975-79.
"The role of the accused as the undisputed head of S-21 is confirmed by the accused's own admission, the testimony of witnesses and civil parties," head judge Nil Nonn said as he read out the verdict.
"Every individual detained within S-21 was destined for execution in accordance with the Communist Party of Kampuchea policy to smash all enemies," he added.
Duch, wearing a blue shirt, slumped in his chair as the tribunal read out the verdict in a courtroom shielded by a huge bullet-proof screen to prevent revenge attacks by Khmer Rouge victims.
He was transported to court in an armoured Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows from the nearby villa-style detention centre where he was being held with four other regime leaders, who face trial for genocide early next year.
The 67-year-old the former schoolteacher will only serve 30 years of his sentence because the court ruled he was held illegally for five years by the Cambodian military.
The verdict was short of the maximum 40 years sought by the prosecution and of the life behind bars demanded by many Cambodians who have struggled to find closure for one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
Theary Seng, a Cambodian who is now an American citizen and who lost his father at the Tuol Sleng prison run by Duch, said: "We hoped this tribunal would strike hard at impunity, but if you can kill 14,000 people and serve only 19 years - 11 hours per life taken - what is that? It's a joke.
"My gut feeling is this has made the situation far worse for Cambodia," he said.
"There is no justice. I wanted life imprisonment for Duch," said Hong Sovath, 47, sobbing. Her father, a diplomat, was killed in the prison.
Khan Mony, whose aunt was executed after passing through the Duch's jail, said he was devastated.
"The verdict is not fair. This warranted life. Duch killed so many people. If this court was fair, people would have been calm and accepted this," she said.
The court said it opted against life in prison for several reasons, including Duch's expressions of remorse, cooperation with the court, his "potential for rehabilitation" and the coercive environment of life under the Khmer Rouge.
"The chamber has decided there are significant mitigating factors that mandate a finite term imprisonment rather than life imprisonment," the tribunal's president said in a statement.
Richard Rogers, head of the court's defence section, said: "The sentence handed down was 35 years. From that there was a five-year deduction because of the illegal detention in the military court. Reduced from that is the 11 years he has served in custody, bringing it to 18 or 19 years,"
Duch admitted to overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 people in his prison, also known as S-21 but said he was only carrying out orders. His case is the first heard by the joint UN-Cambodian court set up to prosecute the Khmer Rouge.
It is seen as a critical test for a multimillion dollar tribunal that has struggled to end decades of silence on the darkest chapter of Cambodia's modern history.
Thousands huddled around televisions in cafes and homes to watch live broadcasts of the verdict. Crowds of Cambodians, including regime survivors and Buddhist monks, turned up at the specially built court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, hoping to finally see justice for the Khmer Rouge's crimes.
Now a born-again Christian, Duch has expressed "excruciating remorse" for the S-21 victims, most of them tortured and forced to confess to spying and other crimes before they were bludgeoned at the "Killing Fields" execution sites during the agrarian revolution. However, Duch shocked the court in November by asking to be acquitted.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population.
Rising to power as a tragic spin-off of the US conflict in Vietnam, the movement emptied Cambodia's cities to take society back to a rural "Year Zero," purging city dwellers, intellectuals and even people who wore glasses.
The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese-backed forces in 1979, but continued to fight a civil war until 1998. Pol Pot died in the same year.
Duch has been detained since 1999, when he was found working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle, and was formally arrested by the tribunal in July 2007.
The court has faced controversy over allegations of interference by the government and claims that Cambodian staff paid kickbacks for their jobs.
While Duch's case is clear-cut, more controversy awaits when, or if, four other cadres indicted by the court are finally tried.
The cases of former president Khieu Samphan, "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith are highly complex and politicised. Many fear they may never go to trial, or they might die before seeing a courtroom.
Standing in the way of justice, analysts say, is not just the excessive bureaucracy and a drawn-out legal process, but a powerful single-party government that has never fully backed the tribunal and has historical ties to the Khmer Rouge.
Many former Khmer Rouge members are now part of Cambodia's civil service and occupy top positions in provincial and central government and experts say they are keen to curtail the court's progress and limit the scope of future investigations.
Long-serving prime minister Hun Sen is himself a former Khmer Rouge foot soldier who says he defected to eventual conquerors Vietnam. He has warned of another civil war if the court expands its probes into the horrors of Pol Pot's "year zero" revolution.
Finance minister Keat Chhon has also admitted his involvement as an interpreter for late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, while foreign minister Hor Namhong has been accused of having Khmer Rouge connections and heading a detention centre. He denies the claims.
Khmer Rouge torturer-in-chief Duch once taught maths to school children but put his cold, calculating mind to far more devastating use as head of a jail from which few inmates ever came out alive. The 67-year-old - whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav - oversaw the extermination of some 15,000 men, women and children at the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia's capital during the communist regime's brutal 1975-1979 rule. Those who worked under him at the prison testified that Duch was universally feared by the staff. Most who worked there were uneducated teenage boys, whom Duch said could be easily indoctrinated because they were "like a blank piece of paper". "Comrade" Duch begged for forgiveness at Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court for crimes committed under his command at the jail, where prisoners were tortured into denouncing themselves and others as foreign spies. But victims questioned whether his remorse was genuine after Duch asked to be acquitted in his closing remarks in November. As a staunch communist, then a born-again Christian and finally remorseful defendant, Duch seemed to always strive to please those above him, making his request to be released all the more surprising. "He is meticulous, conscientious, control-oriented, attentive to detail and seeks recognition from his superiors," according to a psychological examination released by the UN-backed court. Born in 1942 in central Cambodia, Duch is remembered as a sincere teacher devoted to helping the poor, before he became a Khmer Rouge cadre in 1970. The decision to join the communist guerrilla movement was influenced by one of his high school instructors, who also enlisted but would later be executed at Tuol Sleng as a suspected traitor. "I joined the revolution in order to transform society, to oppose the government, to oppose torture," Duch said during his trial. "I sacrificed everything for the revolution, sincerely and absolutely." Inside the rebel-controlled zones, he chose Duch as his revolutionary name because it was used by a model student in a schoolbook from his youth. He then oversaw a series of jungle prisons before being made head of Tuol Sleng after the regime seized the capital in 1975. What began as only a few dozen prisoners turned into a daily torrent of condemned coming through Tuol Sleng, or S-21, as the regime purged itself of its "enemies". Ever meticulous, Duch built up a huge archive of photos, confessions and other documents with which prosecutors traced the final horrible months of thousands of inmates' lives. Following the Khmer Rouge's fall from power, he maintained posts within the communist movement as it battled Vietnam-backed troops. He also reportedly worked in the 1980s for Radio China and later taught English and maths in at least one refugee camp. After his wife was murdered in 1995, Duch turned to Christianity. He was arrested after the Irish photojournalist Nic Dunlop uncovered him working for a Christian aid agency in western Cambodia under a false name. Before that, many had long assumed he was dead following his disappearance after Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. "I told Nic Dunlop, 'Christ brought you to meet me'," Duch told his trial. "I said, 'Before I used to serve human beings, but now I serve God'." * AFP