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30 Years in Jail Too Short for Khmer Rouge Leader - Victims

by Steve Finch

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The Khmer Rouge tribunal delivered its first verdict Monday and sentenced a key leader of the genocidal regime, Comrade Duch, to 30 years behind bars, but many victims were left complaining over this sentence outside the emotional courtroom.

Human skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime are displayed at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial park on the outskirts of Phnom Penh July 26, 2010. A U.N.-backed tribunal sentenced senior Khmer Rouge commander Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch", to 35 years in prison on Monday in its first verdict on the "Killing Fields" revolution blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia three decades ago. (REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea) Comrade Duch, whose real name is Kaing Khek Eav, was chief of the notorious S-21 detention and torture facility here in the Cambodian capital, where at least 12,380 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979.

Because the 67-year-old Duch has been in detention since May 1999, or more than 11 years ago, his sentence could in the end be reduced to about 18 more years from now. "The verdict is too light," complained Bou Meng, one of just 12 people to walk out of Duch's torture facility at Tuol Sleng prison.

Although the prosecution had asked for the maximum 40- year sentence, judges at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal said Duch's compliance with the court and "limited remorse" meant that a total sentence of 35 years was sufficient.

"This court has tried and punished a perpetrator of Democratic Kampuchea, one of the most macabre regimes of the modern era," Co-prosecutor Chea Leang said following the hour-long verdict, which found the defendant guilty of crimes against humanity and crimes against the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that limit the barbarity of war.

A further five years was removed from the sentence due to what was already deemed to be illegal detainment by a military court following Duch's original arrest in May 1999 up to July 2007, when he was handed over to the United Nations-hybrid court itself. With this taken into consideration, Duch will likely be imprisoned until 2029, subject to appeal.

"Anything under 30 (years) is not acceptable because it's inconceivable that he could even have one minute on the street," said Theary Seng, president of Cambodia's Board for Justice and Reconciliation.

"Now if the international community isn't providing us justice, it leaves us with hopelessness," she added.

Close to 1.7 million people, or nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population at the time, were executed or died during the Khmer Rouge's rule due to forced labour or from starvation, as the leader of the extremist Maoist group, Pol Pot, tried to create an agrarian utopia in the country.

It was not just the Duch verdict that caused disquiet, particularly among the civil parties, in what was the first time that victims and their families have been considered part of an international hybrid court process.

In a surprise move, President of the Trial Chamber Nil Nonn told the packed courtroom that only 66 of the civil parties would be recognised in relation to the groundbreaking verdict, meaning that some 21 who had formed part of the process - mostly relatives of those killed under Duch's command - were not eligible for this recognition.

"I am not happy," said Hong Savath, whose uncle died in S-21. "The judge should have told me from the beginning that I am not a civil party."

She would appeal, she added, although lawyers representing the civil parties throughout the process lamented that reparations were little more than symbolic anyway. This is because the Khmer Rouge tribunal had not set up the likes of a trust fund to compensate victims, as is the case with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Along with a compiled list of Duch's confessions of guilt and remorse, the names of those deemed victimised as a result of his actions are to be compiled on the official tribunal website.

But as some civil party lawyers noted, many of the relatives of the Khmer Rouge victims are unlikely to ever witness this gesture anyway, because Cambodia is among the least Internet-connected countries in the region.

"It seems ... what has been ordered is the most minimal, most conservative and - perhaps it's fair to say - rather unimaginative reparations," said Karim Khan, a legal representative of some of the victims.

While lawyers, court monitors, spokespeople, judges, journalists and humanitarian workers announced and debated the verdict and its many intricacies, the most quiet person in the whole process on Jul. 26 was Duch himself.

Asked to stand for the final verdict, he gave little indication of emotion. The five judges did not give the former revolutionary a chance to respond to the deliverance of justice that he denied his own detainees at S-21.

After firing his previous lawyer before the verdict, Duch is expected to lodge an appeal, especially given his surprising request for acquittal during the final hearings at the end of 2009.

The question many have asked throughout this lengthy process is: has Duch changed?

Despite his metamorphosis from mass murderer to Christian aid worker after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, S-21 survivor Chum Mey says he had seen little in the way of remorse and humility in the regime's chief torturer. "Until now, he is the same man. I still see the violence in him and I still see the arrogance." 

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