A UN-backed tribunal’s Supreme Court lengthened the sentence for the Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer to life imprisonment yesterday because of his “shocking and heinous” crimes against the Cambodian people.
The surprise ruling increased a lower court’s 19-year sentence for Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch. Prosecutors had appealed the sentence as too lenient, and outraged survivors had feared the man who oversaw the torture and killing of thousands could one day walk free.
Duch was the first defendant to be tried by the tribunal. He was commander of Phnom Penh’s top-secret Tuol Sleng prison, code-named S-21. He admitted to overseeing the torture of his prisoners before sending them for execution at the “killing fields.”
In July 2010, the tribunal’s lower court convicted Duch (pronounced “Doik”) of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and murder.
He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but had 11 years shaved off for time served and other technicalities. The sentence was appealed both by prosecutors, who called for life imprisonment, and by Duch, who said it was too harsh because he was merely following orders.
Judge Kong Srim, president of the Supreme Court Chamber, said yesterday that the upper court felt the penalty should be more severe because the former jailer was responsible for the brutal deaths of so many.
“The crimes of Kaing Guek Eav were of a particularly shocking and heinous character based on the number of people who were proven to have been killed,” the judge said.
The tribunal said Duch oversaw the deaths of at least 12,272 victims, but estimates have placed the number as high as 16,000.
The court said the high number of deaths and the extended period of time over which they occurred from 1975 to 1979 “undoubtedly place this case among the gravest before international criminal tribunals.”
Duch, 69, stood calmly without emotion as the sentence was read. He then pressed his palms together and drew them to his chest in a show of respect to the judge, before being led away by court guards. The ruling is final, with no other chance for appeal.
Andrew Cayley, the British co-prosecutor, said Duch could request a pardon after 20 years served; in this case, that will be about seven years from now.
Duch trained, ordered and supervised his staff to conduct “systematic torture and execution of prisoners” and showed “dedication to refining the operations of S-21, which was the factory of death,” the court said in a separate statement.
Prosecutors called the ruling a long-awaited victory.
“We can say that justice has now been served after more than 30 years,” Chea Leang said. “To us and to the victims, this is a great success.”
The tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died from torture, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care during the Khmer Rouge’s rule in the 1970s.