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Khmer Rouge Prison Chief Sentenced to 19 Years

A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia has found a former Khmer Rouge leader guilty of numerous crimes against humanity, and ordered him to spend 19 years in prison.

Emotions were high in the war crimes court as the guilty verdict against Kang Guek Eav, also known as Duch, was announced for his part in running Pol Pot's feared secret police in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

The verdict was met with a great sense of relief in the public gallery. Victims of the Khmer Rouge wept openly and hugged each other. Across the country millions watched and listened as the decision was broadcast live by local television and radio networks.

The U.N.-backed court found the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp guilty of torture, murder and crimes against humanity, which were committed more than three decades ago.

Prosecutors had sought a jail term of 40 years. But the court handed down a sentence of 35 years and then reduced it to 19, considering mitigating circumstances, such as an expression of remorse, cooperation with the court and time served.

Youk Chhang is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has spent more than 10 years gathering evidence against surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Despite the sentencing, he says the verdict will play an enormous part in helping Cambodians to reconcile their tragic past.

"I think it's important not only for Cambodia in general but also for the globe to understand that it's never too late to seek justice. And on the other side it's important for us to look into ways in which the genocide can be and should be prevented," he said.

The Khmer Rouge were ousted by invading Vietnamese troops in early 1979, but conflict continued for another two decades. It was then that Cambodia asked the United Nations to help broker an international tribunal to focus on the atrocities allegedly carried out by Pol Pot and his collaborators.

Duch is the first of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to stand trial for his part in the genocide committed in the 1970s. More than 1.7 million people - a quarter of Cambodia's population - died by starvation, disease, torture and execution.

Youk Chhang says the evidence against Duch's should prove effective in prosecuting the other four senior Khmer Rouge leaders who are expected to appear before the court later this year or in early 2011.