PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The first Khmer Rouge commander to face a U.N.-backed tribunal was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Monday for overseeing 14,000 deaths in the 1970s, but he’ll serve about half that, angering many Cambodians.
Kaing Guek Eav, a 67-year-old former prison chief known as Duch, received less than the maximum 40 years sought by the prosecution for his role in the ultra-communist “Killing Fields” regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths from 1975 to 1979.
Duch was found guilty of murder, torture, rape, crimes against humanity and other charges as chief of Tuol Sleng prison, a converted school known as S-21 that symbolized the horrors of a regime that wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
He betrayed no emotion as a judge read the verdict, which cut his sentence to 19 years for time already served. He could be released even earlier on parole if authorities believe has been rehabilitated, according to the court.
“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,” said Theary Seng, a Cambodian who is now a U.S. citizen and lost her father at S-21.
“My gut feeling is this has made the situation far worse for Cambodia,” she said. “It has taken a lot of faith out of the system and raised concerns of political interference.”
Duch had told the court he had no choice but to carry out orders and “kill or be killed.” Prosecutors insisted he was “ideologically of the same mind” as the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders and did nothing to stop rampant torture at his prison.
Some Cambodians wept after hearing the verdict, expressing outrage at the joint U.N.-Cambodian court, which has spent $78.4 million of foreign donations over five years to bring the first of five indicted Khmer Rouge officials to trial.
“There is no justice. I wanted life imprisonment for Duch,” said Hong Sovath, 47, sobbing in the courtroom. Her father, a diplomat, was killed in the prison. Khan Mony, whose aunt was executed after passing through S-21, said she was devastated.
Thousands huddled around televisions in cafes and homes to watch live broadcasts of the verdict.
The court said it decided 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. Cambodia does not have capital punishment.
Now a born-again Christian, Duch had 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 to death at the “Killing Fields” execution sites during the agrarian revolution, which ended with a 1979 invasion by Vietnam.
Foreign investors see the Khmer Rouge trials as a gauge to whether rule of law is taking root in one of Asia’s fastest-growing frontier markets. Justice, however, could be elusive as controversy surrounds other cadres awaiting trial.
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 politicized. 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 center. He denies the claims.
Writing by Jason Szep. Editing by Miral Fahmy