In a stunning about-face, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s highest body on Friday overturned the previous sentence of S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name Duch, and awarded him life in prison. The verdict was roundly greeted with praise from prosecutors, government officials, and international donors. But it was the victims, who had been left deflated by Duch’s initial sentence of 35 years, handed down by the Trial Chamber in 2010, for whom the announcement held especial resonance.
“You know, I’m crying but it’s tears of joy because I feel I’ve gotten justice. I’m enjoying this pleasure at seeing Duch spend the rest of his life in prison because he deserves no mercy,” said Kim Huy, 60.
One of 76 civil parties recognized by the court, Ms. Huy lost her parents and her sister to the notorious prison camp in central Phnom Penh. Sixteen other members of her family died during the Khmer Rouge Regime.
As chief of the notorious interrogation center, Duch, who is now 69, oversaw the torture and execution of more than 12,000 men, women and children. During a 77-day hearing before the Trial Chamber in 2009, witnesses testified to the barbaric treatment that took place inside the prison, which was a converted school building.
They spoke of how prison guards ripped out fingernails and electrocuted those held captive; they spoke of whipping, water boarding, and of a single day in which 160 children were executed. During the trial, Duch himself admitted that being sent to S-21, or Tuol Sleng as the school was once known, was essentially a death sentence.
When that Trial Chamber initially handed down a prison term of 35 years, of which Duch would have served no more than 19 years due to time already spent in jail, many were flabbergasted. After the verdict both the defense and the prosecution appealed.
In a 17-page summary judgment delivered on Friday morning by the Supreme Court Chamber, judges dismissed in its entirety Duch’s appeal requesting acquittal (on the grounds that he did not fall within the jurisdiction of the court) or, barring release, a more lenient sentence in accordance with the Cambodian Penal Code.
Instead the judges ruled in favor of the prosecution, determining that the initial sentence handed down was in fact far too lenient.
“The Trial Chamber attached undue weight to mitigating circumstances and insufficient weight to the gravity of crimes and aggravating circumstances,” said Supreme Court Chamber President Judge Kong Srim. “These failures… constitute an error on a question of law invalidating the sentence in the Trail Judgment.”
As the judges briefly highlighted the scope of his crimes-calling the case one of the “gravest before international criminal tribunals”- Duch looked on impassively, demonstrating little reaction and no emotion.
“The crimes committed by Kaing Guek Eav were undoubtedly among the worst in recorded human history. They deserve the highest penalty available to provide a fair and adequate response to the outrage these crimes invoked in victims, their families and relatives, the Cambodian people, and all human beings,” said Judge Srim.
“The Cambodian people are still faced with unprecedented challenges in recovering from the tragedies caused by the crimes committed by [Duch,]” he added, before announcing the life sentence, adding that the nearly 13 years Duch had spent in prison already would be considered time served.
Under Cambodian law, a prisoner awarded a life sentence may request parole in 20 years. In Duch’s case he would be eligible to apply in less than eight years, though a number of lawyers interviewed on Friday said they believed that it was almost impossible he would qualify.
Outside the courtroom, a former colleague of Duch’s at S-21 looked nervous as he recounted the crimes that took place at Tuol Sleng.
“I still remember so clearly one scene of terror from when I was an interrogator,” said Prak Khon, 58, who was a prison guard at S-21.
“A Vietnamese couple with a seven-month-old baby, a cute girl, was brought to S-21. The husband was dragged into a room. The wife was brought to another. Suddenly, a cadre grabbed the baby girl and threw her out of the second story window. She died at the scene and I was ordered to take the body away to bury. Then I was ordered to clean the ground,” he said, his voice growing quieter and quieter.
“He deserved life in prison.”
Outpourings of support for both the verdict and the conclusion of the tribunal’s first case came quickly.
“A judgment of life doesn’t bring back the victims, it doesn’t restore all that was destroyed, but I think it makes a statement to those victims and to all of history that horrible crimes were committed here,” said Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, speaking with reporters following the announcement. “I think there was some concern that the earlier sentence didn’t reflect that gravity.”
In a speech delivered at the ECCC, where he was in attendance, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An praised the verdict, calling it a major success for the court and for due process.
“Today can be considered a historic day for Cambodians and the nation as a whole…the survivors, the relatives and friends of those who are dead have been waiting for this judgment day,” he said. “This judgment will contribute to minimizing the pains and suffering for all.”
Court donors sent a similar statement of support, congratulating the ECCC on the conclusion of the trial. But others were more wary of the outcome, questioning whether alternative motives may have played a role in imposing such a strong sentence.
“To me it definitely looks like Cambodian public perception has weighed greatly into the final outcome in this judgment,” said Clair Duffy, a tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Duch’s verdict comes as the tribunal is plagued with allegations of government interference in its proceedings. Such allegations led to the resignation of international co-investigating judge Siegfried Blunk. His replacement, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, has still not been appointed over fears that he is pushing ahead with investigations into two cases that the government opposes.
Ms. Duffy and a number of human rights workers said they were discomfited by the judge’s decision to overturn a Trial Chamber ruling, which termed Duch’s eight-year illegal detention by the Cambodian Military Court to be a violation of his rights.
“We commend the court for delivering the final verdict,” said Rupert Abbott, a Cambodia researcher with Amnesty International. “But I think it’s disappointing that the remedy to provide for Duch for his illegal detention was overturned. It demonstrated the universality of human rights… [Now], there could be a belief that public perception trumps human rights.”
For the few remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng, however, there was little doubt that the court had ruled fittingly.
“I’m proud, so proud, with this Supreme Court Chamber,” said Chum Mey. As a prisoner at S-21, Mr. Mey was repeatedly tortured and beaten; his toenails were pulled out. His wife and four children perished during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“It is the absolute justice that I had hoped for more than three decades,” he said. “I’m very at ease now.”