Ex-Khmer Official Sentenced To 35 Years

A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal sentenced a Khmer Rouge prison commandant who oversaw the deaths of at least 12,000 people to 35 years in prison. But he will serve only 19 years of the sentence. The court shaved off 11 years for time already spent in detention and five more for being illegally detained in a military court.

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More than three decades after the Khmer Rouge unleashed its reign of terror in Cambodia, one of its leaders finally will pay for those crimes. An international war crimes court handed down a sentence of 35 years to a former prison commander for the torture and execution of thousands of fellow Cambodians. NPR's Jackie Northam was at the courthouse in Phnom Penh when the verdict and the sentence were announced.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Kaing Guek Eav, who goes by the single Duch, looked on impassively as Chief Judge�Nil Nonn of the International War Crimes Tribunal handed down the sentence.

Judge NIL NONN (International War Crimes Tribunal): (Through translator) In deciding on an appropriate sentence, the chamber has noted a number of aggravating features, including the shocking and heinous character of the offenses.

NORTHAM: Duch was found guilty for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges stem back to his time as commander of Tuol Sleng�Prison here in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge was in power from 1975 to 1979. More than a million-and-a-half people were killed by the regime.

For his part, Duch oversaw the torture and execution of about 16,000 men, women, even children who were considered enemies of the state. He was often present during brutal, inhuman interrogation sessions that involved electrical shocks, mock drownings and the extraction of finger and toenails.

Duch could've faced life in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to 35 years. But court spokesman Lars Olsen says between mitigating circumstances, time served and time held illegally by a military court, Duch could spend much less time than that in prison.

Mr. LARS OLSEN (Spokesman, International War Crimes Tribunal): So it means that if the verdict becomes final, meaning not appealed, he has another 19 years to serve.

NORTHAM: Some 500 Cambodians were in the courtroom when the sentence was read. There was enormous interest in the outcome, and it was carried live on most of the television stations. Many people traveled from far-flung areas of the country to the courtroom here in Phnom Penh to see justice done.

Keari Singh(ph) was sorely disappointed in the verdict. She says Duch should've received many life sentences. Singh says the 67-year-old Duch could still be alive in 19 years.

Ms. KEARI SINGH: It's not conceivable that he could walk the street, even for one minute, as a free man. Anything less than 30, 35 years is unacceptable.

NORTHAM: Still, Singh, whose mother and father were killed by the Khmer Rouge, says she's glad she was in the courtroom today.

Ms. SINGH: It's very important to be here as a society to repudiate, collectively, the crimes - the massive crimes of the past and to join in the fellowship of suffering and the hope that we have now.

NORTHAM: Duch is the first of five Khmer Rouge leaders to face trial. The remaining four are still being held in detention. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Yem Mam(ph) traveled from Philadelphia to attend the trial. His father, wife and several children were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Only three out of fifteen people in his family survived the regime. Mam says regardless of today's result, he has faith in the Cambodian war crimes system.

Mr. YEM MAM: (Through translator) I want to see the prosecution of all the big perpetrators. Today is just one verdict. This is a proper legal mechanism that respected the rule of law, and it must be used to prosecute other Khmer Rouge leaders.

NORTHAM: The trials of the remaining four Khmer Rouge defendants are due to start later this year. In the meantime, prosecutors working on the Duch case have 90 days to file an appeal.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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