The prison sentence given yesterday to former S-21 Chairman Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, met with scant approval among some Cambodians.
Duch was convicted yesterday by the Khmer Rouge tribunal of overseeing the deaths of more than 12,000 people. The court handed him a 35-year prison sentence, which was then reduced to 19 years after taking into account his unlawful 11-year pretrial detention and subtracting time served.
“For the Duch case, his sentence is equal to only one crime of someone who kills one person,” Meanchey district policewoman Soth Sitha, 44, said yesterday. “But for Duch, he killed many, many people, and he has the same sentence as a person who killed one.”
The displeasure of Ms Sitha, who said she was too busy to watch yesterday’s TV broadcast of the verdict, was echoed by other Cambodians in interviews on the streets of the capital.
“I want the court to decide to kill him,” motorcycle taxi driver Khem Sinath, 32, said when asked about the verdict. “I feel 35 years is not enough for what he has done to Cambodia.”
Mr Sinath, whose parents told him stories about the Khmer Rouge, watched the court’s delivery of the sentence at a restaurant.
Other city residents also said they felt the sentence was insufficient.
“It’s not enough. I want him to spend his whole life in prison,” said a 58-year-old woman who began weeping after the first question from a reporter. She declined to give her name, saying her husband doesn’t want her to talk about the country’s communist past.
“My husband doesn’t want me to get involved,” she said as she wiped her eyes at the clothes shop she runs. “He doesn’t want me to keep getting emotional about the Khmer Rouge. He wants me to forget it.”
Another woman who also asked not to be named said that Duch’s trial was “like the theater. It has no meaning to me.”
“I think it’s not important, the Duch trial,” the 30-year-old camera shop owner explained. “They judge for what? It’s just far in the past. There are many cases now in the present that they should take more seriously.”
The woman pointed in particular to the case of opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was convicted of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen after suing him for defaming her.
“She did many right things but she still lost,” the woman said. “This case expresses the truth about Cambodia.”
Yesterday’s sentencing led to confusion at a screening organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Kompong Thom province’s Stun Sen city, DC-Cam Legal Adviser Anne Heindel said.
“The majority of the people seemed to be saying, OK, he’s 67, that’s a life sentence in fact. They were satisfied, and then we had to turn around and tell them, actually it’s 19 years,” she explained. “I can only imagine that this is extremely frustrating to people. We had one woman whose uncle had died at Tuol Sleng, and she was completely distressed by it.”
DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said the 19-year sentence means Duch will most likely die in prison.
“No amount of years [in prison] would satisfy all of us, because the loss is so huge, and because it’s so personal at the individual level,” he added.
Mr Chhang said that the judicial process itself was beneficial to victims.
“To them, a crime that was committed against them 30 years ago was finally recognized by a court of law,” he said.
Duch’s reduced prison term is shorter than the sentences handed out in Cambodia’s courts for murder, or even heroin possession.
On June 30, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced four family members to 20 years each after convicting the quartet of conspiracy and premeditated murder.
On May 19, the Court of Appeal upheld a 20-year prison sentence for a woman found in possession of 350 grams of heroin five years ago.
Two-decade sentences have also recently been handed out to a Thai national convicted of planting landmines, and to a schoolteacher for torturing an 11-year-old child.
Duch was responsible for the torture and deaths of at least 14,000 people while chief of the Tuol Sleng prison camp and in a single day in June 1977 he authorized the executions of 160 children.
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace)