A Life Sentence for 14,000 Deaths

| February 6, 2012, 1:50 am4
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the chief warden at S-21, the main prison in the Cambodian capital during the Khmer Rouge regime. Duch had appealed his 19-year sentence before a United Nations-backed court, saying it was too harsh. Prosecutors also appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient. Now Duch's sentence has been extended to life in prison.
Nhet Sokheng/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the chief warden at S-21, the main prison in the Cambodian capital during the Khmer Rouge regime. Duch had appealed his 19-year sentence before a United Nations-backed court, saying it was too harsh. Prosecutors also appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient. Now Duch’s sentence has been extended to life in prison.

Now, consider for a moment the language the man is using, if only because he is the chief judge at an international court, a man chosen for his calm, his restraint, his judicial temperament: He called the defendant in the dock before him “a shocking and heinous character’’ who as a prison warden had overseen “a factory of death,’’ perpetrating crimes that were “undoubtedly among the worst in human history.’’

The judge, Kong Srim, a Cambodian, was speaking at the recent sentencing of Kaing Guek Eav, a prison warden during the Khmer Rouge regime who orchestrated the torture and killing of some 14,000 Cambodians, some for the “crimes’’ of wearing eyeglasses, speaking French, owning books or playing the piano.

The warden, better known as Duch (pronounced doik), was the first person to be judged by a United Nations-backed tribunal in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Duch had appealed his previous sentence of 19 years, saying it was much too harsh. His prosecutors also appealed, saying the sentence was far too lenient, and they asked for a term of 45 years.

In the end, Duch got life. Which was more than his victims got.

Duch’s prison, known as Tuol Sleng or S-21, is today a spare and horrifying museum. It’s not for the squeamish. And to think that it had once been a school where kids learned grammar, French, music. The phrase “crimes against humanity” was never more applicable than at S-21. Such crimes.

Duch’s sentencing served as “a statement to those victims and all of history,’’ said Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, speaking to Al Jazeera English. He also called the verdict “a great day for Cambodia.”

Duch, 69, although he has taken responsibility for his crimes, argued all along that he was merely a bit player in the Khmer Rouge tragedy that killed an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. Three senior members of the regime are currently on trial, including Nuon Chea, the regime’s chief ideologist, known as Brother No. 2 behind the leader Pol Pot.

But the tribunal process remains chaotic, even glacial, and the Cambodian government often seems to be in no great hurry to move the process along.

One Cambodian human rights activist, Theary Seng, told Al Jazeera that she thought the life sentence for Duch was part of a government ruse to protect the remaining members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy: “They want him to be the scapegoat,’’ she said, “for the whole Khmer Rouge regime.’’

It was a nasty oil slick of a regime, and every Cambodian seems to have a tale (or many tales) of lost relatives, missing friends, long-ago happiness.

My late Cambodian friend, Sok Sin, told me stories about how he lived in a forest for three years, hiding from the red-scarved Stalinist maniacs during what is known as “Pol Pot time.’’

Sok Sin eventually became a fixer for journalists, and one day in 1999, while preparing a story about the U.N. tribunal, we drove into northern Cambodia. I had heard about a young woman in a remote town whose toddler had been killed when a Khmer Rouge soldier cut off the little girl’s hands. Several years later, after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the woman gave birth to another daughter — and the baby was born without hands.

On that same trip, Sok Sin ran into an old friend in a rural market, and he used a Khmer greeting that, alas, had become customary: “So nice to see you alive.’’

That kind of language is both compelling and instructive, and the kind that judge Kong Srim also speaks.

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