A day after S-21 prison warden Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was sentenced to a relatively lenient 35 years behind bars, of which no more than 19 years remain to be served, victims of the Khmer Rouge jailer said they were doubly outraged.
Not only were they unhappy with what they considered to be a light prison sentence, but many of them were also mourning the fact that the claims of 24 civil parties were rejected at the last possible minute during the reading of the verdict on Monday.
Although the 90 victims who participated in the trial have been known as civil parties to most everyone, most of them were technically just “civil party applicants” until Monday’s verdict, said Lars Olsen, the ECCC’s legal affairs spokesman.
The court’s rules have now changed, and in future cases decisions on civil party admissibility must be made before the trial begins, he added.
“Our emotions are being double-destroyed by the court’s decision to exclude a number of civil parties,” said 37-year-old Nheb Kimsrea, who said she lost her uncle, aunt and cousins at Tuol Sleng. She was speaking at a forum at the offices of mental health NGO known as the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, where about 70 civil parties gathered yesterday.
The tribunal ruled on Monday that Ms Kimsrea, who was born in 1978, could not have known her murdered relatives or establish that she had “special bonds of affection” with them.
Ms Kimsrea, who traveled from her home in Kratie province to hear the verdict, said she could not sleep at all on Monday night.
She used tissues to dab at her teary eyes yesterday as she sat in a circle with other victims, sharing their thoughts on the verdict.
“I am here for crying, because I am fed up with the ECCC’s verdict!” shouted Leang Kan, 58, of Koh Kong province. Her claim that her nephew died at S-21 could not be verified, the court decided.
“Chhay Kan, alias Leang Kan, alleges that one of her nephews, Nhem Chheuy, was detained at S-21, having seen his photograph when visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum,” the court wrote in its final judgment. “While it is established that, as a child, Leang Kan lived with this nephew, who was an orphan, it has been not been established that the photograph of the detainee provided in support of her application is in fact that of Nhem Chheuy.”
Ms Kan said she was still struggling to contain her emotions. She had to consult with TPO staff before walking into the ECCC’s public gallery to watch the verdict because she was not sure she could bear it.
“To be honest, it was hard to control my temper because I was about to explode when that cruel man turned his face with that quiet smile to hear his prison term was so light,” she said.
Silke Studzinsky, a civil party lawyer who represented 17 clients, said that five of her clients had their claims rejected on Monday.
Yesterday, their mood was “disappointed, angry, upset, sad, a mixture of everything,” she said. “Those who were recognized had a strong feeling of solidarity with those who were rejected.”
Ms Studzinsky said she plans to appeal on behalf of all five of the clients whose applications were not admitted.
“Yes, they want this. They told us today,” she said.
The court could and should have clarified the status of most of the victims long before Monday, said Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia. She called the last-minute rejections “terribly unfortunate.”
“It’s a re-victimization of them,” she said. “Whether or not they can establish an appropriate link [to S-21], they are victims of the regime who are now suffering trauma from the fact that they don’t even get the minimal recognition of their names being written in the judgment.”
Meas Saoeurn, a civil party who did get that recognition on Monday, said she was nevertheless full of sympathy for the excluded victims.
“I didn’t expect to hear other civil parties were excluded,” she said.
Ms Saoeurn suggested that the court change its procedures in the future: “If I were a judge, I would never decide based on Duch’s cooperation with the court, I would just decide based on a majority of civil parties’ demands.”
TPO is now focusing on helping civil parties find closure after the verdict and preparing them to return to their homes in the provinces, said Muny Sothara, a project coordinator for the group.
But victims will probably not receive a final answer on the question of sentencing until the appeals process is complete, which could take months.
Duch’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, has already announced his intention to appeal, and prosecutors have indicated they are also considering one.
Depending on the nature of the appeals, the tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber could eventually raise or lower the sentence.
In a partial dissent to Monday’s verdict, Judge Jean-Marc Lavergne argued that the sentence should in fact be even lower. He said that both international and Cambodian law do not allow judges to impose a sentence of more than 30 years if the penalty is less than life in jail.
But sentencing is still a subjective area of the law with ample room for flexibility, Ms Heindel said.
“There’s so little jurisprudence on this and international criminal law is still so new that [the court] can do, as far as I’m concerned, whatever it wants on the sentencing issue,” she said.