Khmer Rouge chief jailer sentenced for war crimes

Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, jailed for 35 years for his role in torture and killing of 16,000 inmates at Tuol Sleng prison

A UN-backed war crimes tribunal today sentenced the chief jailer of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime to 35 years in prison for his part in the torture and killing of more than 16,000 people.

The sentence marks the first time a major figure in the regime has been brought to account for his part in the "killing fields" genocide, that claimed the lives of about 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia's population.

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, showed no emotion as the verdict was read out, having admitted during the 77-day trial to controlling Tuol Sleng, a top secret detention centre in Phnom Penh, for the worst "enemies" of the state.

The 67-year old former maths teacher will serve 19 years after the court agreed to deduct the 11 years he spent in detention and the five he spent illegally detained in a military court. Prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence.

Victims and their relatives were in tears after hearing that Duch could one day walk free. "I can't accept this," said Saodi Ouch, 46, shaking so hard she could hardly talk. "My family died ... my older sister, my older brother. I'm the only one left."

Over a four-year period in the late 1970s, more than 16,000 men, women and children passed through Tuol Sleng, only 14 are thought to have survived. Most were tortured into making confessions before being loaded onto trucks and driven to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, where they were bludgeoned to death.

Duch had authorised the tortures and executions – including the pulling out of prisoners' toenails, administering electric shocks and waterboarding – sometimes taking part himself, the court heard.

The tribunal recognised that Duch was not a member of the Khmer Rouge's inner clique and that he had co-operated with the court. Judge Nil Nonn said the court had rejected arguments that Duch was simply obeying orders because he feared for his life. "He worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors," the judge said.

The former jailer has previously expressed remorse for his part in the atrocities – the only major regime figure to do so – offering at one point to face a public stoning and to allow victims to visit him in jail. On the final day of the $100m (£65m) tribunal, he requested to be acquitted and freed, making many doubt his contrition was sincere.

"He tricked everybody," said Chum Mey, 79, who survived Tuol Sleng.

Wiping tears from his eyes after the sentencing, the key witness told Associated Press: "See, my tears drop down again. I feel like I was victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I'm a victim once again."

More than 1,000 people were present for the verdict, some travelling more than 180 miles by bus.

"It's just unacceptable to have a man who killed thousands of people serving just 19 years," said Theary Seng, a human rights lawyer whose parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and who has been working with others in the campaign for justice. "Now no one is going to have the energy to look at the second case."

The Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne welcomed today's verdict, although he recognised it would provide only "small comfort" for the relatives of those killed.

The trial had played an important role in helping Cambodians come to terms with their bloody past, he added. "Combating impunity for the most serious crimes of international concern is a key priority around the world," he said.

"The verdict in Phnom Penh sends a strong message that the international community will not allow such serious crimes to be committed with impunity, however long it takes to bring the perpetrators to justice."

The future of the internationally sponsored tribunal remains a sensitive issue for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 but the four most senior Khmer Rouge cadres await trial. The case is unlikely to end before 2014, and UN prosecutors have warned that one or more of the elderly accused will either be unfit to enter a plea or die before the trial is complete.

The prime minister, Hun Sen, a former low-level Khmer Rouge cadre, has warned that further investigations could trigger a civil war. "If war breaks out again and kills 20,000 or 30,000 people, who will be responsible?"

Amnesty International expressed concern that only a few suspects have been identified for possible prosecution . "Identifying only five or 10 people as allegedly responsible for the massive atrocities does not do enough to satisfy the justice that Cambodians deserve and are entitled to under international law," said Donna Guest, the human rights group's Asia-Pacific deputy director.

Alexandra Topping and agencies in Phnom Penh

The GuardianTramp

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