The U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal charged with investigating the notorious “killing fields” regime in Cambodia handed down its first verdict Monday, sentencing the warden of a violent Khmer Rouge prison to 35 years in prison — a sentence that was later reduced to 19 years for time already served.
Kaing Guek Eav, more widely known during his Khmer years as Duch, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the torture and killing of as many as 16,000 people at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh.
Judges ruled the 67-year-old Duch will serve a reduced sentence of 19 years because of time already served. Despite admitting guilt multiple times throughout the eight-month proceedings, on the last day of the trial he made a surprise request for the court to set him free.
NewsHour correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reported on the role of the tribunal and the case against Duch in May:
Judges noted during the trial that Duch signed off on all the tortures and executions at the prison and at times would take an active role in them. Luong Ung, a survivor of the so-called “killing fields” and author of the memoir “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” told the NewsHour the diligent documentation of the Khmer Rouge has aided the prosecution.
“The Khmer government was very meticulous at documenting what they did during their regime,” said Ung. “They were very meticulous with who they brought in and who they tortured and his signature was found pretty much everywhere.”
Ung said the tribunal was set up without precedent, in a country with no existing physical courts, so personnel needed to be trained on how to carry out proceedings and the courts had to be created from scratch.
Duch reportedly sat stone faced as he listened to survivor testimonies. Watch highlights from the trial:
Despite the national solidarity around bringing closure to the tragic period of the country’s history, there have been criticisms of the tribunal’s proceedings and some Cambodians expressed anger over Duch’s reduced sentence.
The decision to shorten Duch’s prison time has also been sharply criticized by human rights advocates. Gregory Stanton, director of the Cambodian Genocide Project, said he advocates that alternative methods of punishment also be prescribed within the existing sentence so Duch is forced to confront what happened under his command.
“He could be asked to write letters to the victims’ families. There are many possibilities here that have not been explored and the court has the power to prescribe,” said Stanton, who helped draft the internal rules of procedure and evidence for the tribunal. “I would hope that they use that kind of creativity.”