Comrade Duch, Chief Khmer Rouge Executioner, Dies at 77

His trial and conviction demonstrated both the potential, and limits, of international justice.

Kaing Guek Eav, the former schoolteacher known as Duch who ran a notorious security prison under Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime, died on Wednesday at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in the country’s capital Phnom Penh. He was 77. According to a spokesman for the United Nations-backed tribunal that tried and convicted Duch of crimes against humanity, he was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday. The exact cause of death is unknown.

Duch died the sort of quiet death that he never allowed the thousands of Cambodians who passed through his hands at Tuol Sleng, a former Phnom Penh high school that served as the central security prison of Democratic Kampuchea, as the regime officially termed itself. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge’s uncompromising attempt to forge a pure agrarian utopia caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, around a quarter of the country’s population at the time.

As commandant of Tuol Sleng—code named “S-21”—Duch presided over the death of at least 14,000 Cambodians who were interrogated, forced to sign mostly false confessions, and, in all but a handful of cases, executed. “S-21 was the end of the line,” Duch later told the filmmaker and Khmer Rouge survivor Rithy Panh. “People who got sent there were already corpses.”

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