Khmer Rouge Prison Chief Could Get 40 Years

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Prosecutors in the genocide trial of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief demanded a 40-year jail sentence Wednesday for Kaing Guek Eav. They say he is responsible for snuffing out innocent lives and spreading terror across Cambodia. Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime called the requested sentence unacceptable.


Thirty years after the end of genocide in Cambodia, a trial is nearing its end. A former prison commander is the first former high ranking official to go on trial. He ran a prison called Tuol Sleng or S-21. He was an official in the Khmer Rouge, the group that ruled Cambodia during four years of torture and executions. As many as 1.7 million Cambodians died.

The prosecution is asking that Comrade Duch be given 40 years in prison. NPR's Michael Sullivan is at the trial in Phnom Penh, and we warn listeners that they may find some parts of this report disturbing.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Kaing Guek Eav's trial has been going on for nine months now. And during that time, the court has heard grizzly detail from survivors and from the Khmer Rouge's own meticulous record keeping, about the horrors inflicted on prisoners at Tuol Sleng. A list repeated by co-prosecutor William Smith today, as the prosecution wrapped up its case.

Savage beatings, fingernails and toenails pulled out with pliers, electrocution, all were part of the Tuol Sleng experience, Smith said, which ended for almost all of the prisoners at the killing field of Choeung Ek.

Mr. WILLIAM SMITH (Prosecutor): Blindfolded and handcuffed, the prisoners were forced to kneel down in the dark next to their own burial pits. There they waited until the blow of a shovel or car axle broke the back of their heads. And if that did not kill them their throats were slit before they were kicked into their grave.

SULLIVAN: The man accused of overseeing those executions isn't denying his guilt. Kaing Guek Eav, today, looked calm, relaxed even, in his blue button-down oxford and khakis, as the prosecutor spoke. The 67-year-old's defense, one he's repeated throughout the trial, that he was simply a cog in the machine, doing the bidding of his superiors lest he be killed, too. Duch, speaking through a translator, nonetheless apologized again today.

Mr. KAING GUEK EAV (Commander, Tuol Sleng prison): (Through translator) I still claim that I am solely and individually liable for the loss of at least 12,380 lives. I still and forever wish to most respectfully and humbly apologize to the dead souls.

SULLIVAN: Then Duch spoke to the handful of prisoners who managed to make it out of Tuol Sleng alive.

Mr. EAV: (Through translator) To the survivors, I stand by my acknowledgment of all crimes which were inflicted on you at S-21. I acknowledge them both in the legal and moral context.

SULLIVAN: Outside the courtroom, one of the survivors was having none of it. Chum Mey, who lost his wife and two children to the Khmer Rouge, a man imprisoned at Tuol Sleng for allegedly being a CIA spy, says his former jailer's remorse and pleas for forgiveness are both insincere and insufficient. The prosecution's recommendation of 40 years in prison for Duch, he says, not nearly enough.

Mr. CHUM MEY: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: It's not justice, he says. Duch should get at least 70 to 80 years or life - or better yet, hang him, he says. Chum Mey says he's now going to have to light incense and pray that the souls of the dead may yet find justice when the court issues its verdict in the case some time next year.

Forty years on, many here are still looking for justice, or at least an explanation, why nearly two million people died during the four year long rule of the Khmer Rouge. But it's also true there are many here who simply aren't interested. I met both today, at a roadside video shop not a mile from the trial venue.

One young man, an accountant, said the tribunal was a good idea and would help the country heal from the wounds of that time. But his 20-year-old friend, a cell phone repair man, just laughed when I asked him about the tribunal. I don't know anything about it, he said. I can't even tell you who's on trial. That was a long time ago, he said, and right now, I'm too busy to care about that sort of thing.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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