Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes court gives its final verdict Friday on the Khmer Rouge jailer who oversaw the deaths of 15,000 people, ending the first-ever prosecution for the “Killing Fields” era.
Hundreds are set to travel to the Phnom Penh-based court to hear whether an appeal bid by Kaing Guek Eav – better known as Duch – is successful, or if judges will side with the prosecution and hand down a harsher punishment.
The historic verdict will also be broadcast live on television across a country still haunted by the brutality of the blood-soaked 1975-1979 regime, which wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Duch was sentenced to 30 years in 2010 over his role as head of the feared S-21 prison where starving inmates suffered horrific abuse, including electric shocks and having their finger nails pulled out.
Many survivors say they want Duch to die in jail.
“We want justice with a serious punishment,” said Norng Chan Phal, now 43, a former child survivor of S-21.
“He deserves to suffer like the other people who died there, including my parents.”
The Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
Led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the communist movement emptied the capital when they took power and S-21, a former school in the heart of the city, became the regime’s main prison and torture centre.
Duch has been held in detention since he was found working as a Christian aid worker in the Cambodian jungle in 1999. He was formally arrested by the tribunal in July 2007.
He was the first cadre to face the international tribunal.
During his nine-month trial he repeatedly apologised for his role at S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng prison, but surprised the court by asking to be acquitted at the 11th hour.
On appeal, Duch told judges he only survived because he “respectfully and strictly followed the orders”, while his lawyers argued their client should be released because he was “just a minor secretary”.
Prosecutors said the shock decision to ask for a full acquittal showed he “lacks real, sincere remorse for what happened” and demanded a life term, to be commuted to 45 years for time spent in unlawful detention before the court was established.
Trial observers say it’s highly unlikely Duch will go free.
A second trial involving the regime’s three most senior surviving leaders opened at the court late last year, but there are fears that not all of the defendants, who are in their eighties, will live to see a verdict.