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Khmer Rouge Leader's Prison Sentence Gets Mixed Reaction

  • Robert Carmichael

On Monday, a United Nations-backed tribunal convicted Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, of war crimes and crimes against humanity - the first major Khmer Rouge figure to be tried since the regime was overthrown. He has already spent 16 years in prison, and the tribunal sentenced him to another 19 years.

Eight months after his trial concluded, Comrade Duch was sentenced to 35 years by the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh.

The court deducted 11 years for time already spent in pre-trial detention for Duch, who headed the movement's main torture and execution center known as S-21. And it granted a further five-year credit because Duch was held illegally for some of that time.

The end result is that Duch will likely serve just 19 more years.

His sentence surprised and angered many people, including Bou Meng and Chum Mey, two of the survivors of S-21 prison. They felt it was unduly lenient for a man who had overseen the torture and execution of more than 12,000 people.

Speaking outside the court Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who lost members of her family to the Khmer Rouge, said 19 years was insufficient for the horrific acts the 67-year-old defendant had overseen while head of S-21.

"That is not acceptable," Seng said. "What is unacceptable is to envision him as a free man even for one minute in the public sphere."

But was reaction was mixed. While some welcomed the verdict, including a third S-21 survivor, the artist Vann Nath, others felt Duch should have been executed.

The reaction from Cambodians living overseas was also mixed.

Professor Leakhena Nou, a Cambodian-American sociologist, was in court on Monday along with three Cambodian-Americans who have applied to be civil parties in the court's second case, which should start next year.

"As you heard from one of our civil parties in today's meeting, she was not very happy with the verdict, having lost one of her parents and her siblings. But from our older survivor, who is in his late 70s, he felt that one positive thing that came out of the trial was the transparent process on how the rule of law was implemented," Nou said. "Although he was not happy with the number of years, he felt the court did make a concerted effort to find justice."

Speaking on Wednesday, Theary Seng said civil society must now focus on the second case involving four senior Khmer Rouge leaders who will be tried for their alleged roles in the deaths of around 1.7 million Cambodians.

"That responsibility rests with the senior Khmer Rouge leaders, and that's case 002," Seng said. "So we need to shift our anger now and our energy from anger toward energy in lobbying and advocating and demanding that case 002 involving the senior Khmer Rouge leaders take place, and take place soon before these old men die of ill health and of old age.”

Beyond case two, the court's international investigating judge said he wants to look at another five suspects.

The court has faced complaints of political interference as well as a series of cash crunches over the years.

Anne Heindel is a legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an archive of papers on the Khmer Rouge period. She says there is a risk that donors simply won't pay for any further prosecutions.

"In many ways, I think funding might be the greater issue actually," Heindel stated. "It could very well be that when it comes to it, it will be the donors that aren't willing to pay for cases 3 and 4 rather than the government saying we aren't willing to let these cases move forward. And that's actually my greatest concern right now, because Japan is not putting forward as much support as it has in the past and thus far there's been no other state willing to take its place."

Sociologist Leakhena Nou notes that a successful tribunal process would have huge benefits for Cambodian society and for Cambodians living overseas.

Not only would it help survivors get recognition of their suffering and provide a sense of closure, she says, it would also leave a beneficial legacy for current and future generations.

Two days after his verdict was handed down, many are looking to a brighter future in which the catastrophe that Duch and others wrought on Cambodia is - in some small way - repaired.