Sentence reduced for former Khmer Rouge prison chief

A former Khmer Rouge prison chief convicted of crimes against humanity will serve little more than half of his 35-year sentence, a penalty that many victims said Monday was unthinkably lenient.

Kang Kek Ieu — known in tribunal filings as Kaing Guek Eav but best known by his revolutionary name, Comrade Duch — had his sentence reduced to 19 years by the U.N.-backed tribunal that convicted him, in part because he has already been behind bars for 11 years.

Duch, 67, who presided over the grisly torture and execution of more than 14,000 Cambodians, could have received a life sentence. The math teacher-turned-revolutionary betrayed little emotion as a judge read a statement saying that the coercive climate in which he followed orders, matched by his expression of remorse, albeit limited, and cooperation with the tribunal, warranted a lesser sentence than life in prison.


The verdict was broadcast by every network in this country, ensuring that millions of Cambodians watched the results of a trial that had begun in relative obscurity a few years ago.

Tang Bun Chheoung, who watched in a dusty cantina on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital, was dismayed by the result. “This is the punishment you would expect for killing just one person,” said the 48-year-old, who lost both her parents under the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime. “Today’s sentence makes it seem trivial.”

Frustration with the sentence was bound to run high, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has amassed much of the evidence used in the trial. “With whatever amount of years announced by the court, there wasn’t going to be satisfaction,” he said. “You could sentence him to more than 14,000 years, for each life, and even that wouldn’t make it fair. But, finally, there’s official accountability.”

Indeed, it was the first time a Khmer Rouge official has been held to account by the tribunal for having a role in the revolution to forge an agrarian utopia by forcing the population onto collective farms and abolishing religion, money and schools. From 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population — an estimated 1.7 million people — died from execution, starvation and exhaustion. The nightmare ended only after a Vietnamese-supported dissident force toppled the Khmer Rouge.

During hearings last year, Duch admitted responsibility for the lives lost at his prison and expressed “deep regret and heartfelt sorrow.” But he also insisted he carried out orders under threat of death.

His remorse was interrupted by glimmers of pride in having managed the facility with such unerring efficiency. At one point, Duch even expressed his indignation with now-deceased former regime leader Pol Pot’s claim that Duch’s prison, S-21, didn’t exist.

“He spoke gently in court to trick people,” said former S-21 guard Him Huy, who is not facing trial because the tribunal is aimed only at former senior leaders and those deemed “most responsible.” Testimony from former prison staff and some of the few prisoners to have survived included details of whippings, electrocutions, live blood-draining and babies smashed against trees. It remains uncertain how many more former cadres will face trial. Four higher-ranking leaders wait in custody but they are in their 70s and 80s and infirm.

Brady is a special correspondent.