|Kaing Guek Eav, 67, is tied to the killing of 16,000 people. (Getty Images)|
Khmer Rouge victims rip sentence
‘Killing Fields’ jailer’s 19-year term draws howls
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Victims and relatives yesterday criticized the sentence given to Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer, who was found guilty of overseeing the deaths of nearly 16,000 people.
A UN-backed tribunal sentenced Kaing Guek Eav — also known as Duch, pronounced Doik — to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but he will serve only 19 years, after taking into account time already served and other factors.
It was the first verdict involving a senior member of the “Killing Fields’’ regime that devastated a generation of Cambodians.
Many in the courtroom burst into tears after learning that Duch, 67, will serve only 19 years. That means he could one day walk free, a prospect that infuriated many who have been demanding justice for victims of the regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and ’79.
“I can’t accept this,’’ said 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.’’
More than three decades after the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population while trying to turn the country into a vast agrarian collective, Duch is so far the only person to face justice.
The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are awaiting trial for their part in the deaths from execution, starvation, medical neglect, and slavelike working conditions.
The tribunal — 10 years and $100 million in the making — said it took into consideration the historical context of the atrocities: The regime was the product of the troubled Cold War times.
It also recognized that Duch, who headed Tuol Sleng, a secret detention center for the worst enemies of the state, was not a member of the Khmer Rouge’s inner clique and that he had cooperated with the court, admitted responsibility, and showed limited expressions of remorse.
During the 77-day proceedings, Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people who passed through the prison’s gates. Torture used to extract confessions included pulling out prisoners’ toenails, administering electric shocks, and waterboarding.
One of the tribunal’s international judges, Silvia Cartwright, said she understood that those who lived through the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror may be upset at the sentence.
“That’s one of the reasons that we have an objective tribunal . . . fixing as balanced a sentence as we can,’’ she said. “If left to the victims to decide how to punish a person, then it would be, possibly, mob rule.’’
“You have to bear in mind that victims are very deeply hurt and traumatized,’’ she said. “We can never give them what they lost . . . so a sentence can only ever be symbolic in a way.’’
The prosecution and defense have one month to appeal.
Unlike the other defendants, Duch has asked for forgiveness several times, 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.
“He tricked everybody,’’ said Chum Mey, 79, one of just a few survivors among people sent to Tuol Sleng prison. . The key witness wiped his eyes. “See . . . my tears drop down again. I feel like I was a victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I’m a victim once again.’’
Duch, sitting rigidly in a crisp light purple shirt and starring into the distance, showed no emotion as he listened yesterday to the judge talk about the court’s findings.
Judges noted that the jailer was often present during interrogations at Tuol Sleng and signed off on all the tortures and executions, sometimes taking part himself.
He said the court had rejected arguments that he was acting on orders from the top because he was under duress or feared for his own life.
“In carrying out his functions, he showed a high degree of efficiency and zeal,’’ the judges wrote.