Anger in Cambodia follows Khmer Rouge sentence

Monday, July 26, 2010

By Seth Mydans
New York Times

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For 30 years since the brutal Khmer Rouge regime was driven from power, Cambodians have lived with unresolved trauma, with skulls and bones from some killing fields still lying in the open and with parents hiding the pain of their past from their children.

Monday, Cambodia took a significant step toward addressing its harsh past with the first conviction of a major Khmer Rouge figure in connection with the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979.

But some survivors were distraught over what they saw as a lenient sentence, one that could allow the defendant — Kaing Guek Eav, 67, the commandant of the central Khmer Rouge prison and torture house — to possibly walk free one day, despite being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 people.

A U.N.-backed court sentenced the commandant, known as Duch, to 35 years in prison, a term that was reduced to 19 years because of time already served and in compensation for a period of illegal military detention. His term could be reduced for good behavior.

One of the few survivors of Duch's prison shouted in agitation in the muddy courtyard outside the tribunal building. "I am not satisfied!" cried the survivor, Chum Mey, 79, who had testified in excruciating detail about his 12 days of torture. "We are victims two times, once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again."

"His prison is comfortable, with air conditioning, food three times a day, fans and everything," he said. "I sat on the floor with filth and excrement all around."

It was the first time in Cambodia's modern history that a senior government official had been made accountable for serious human rights violations and the first time such a trial had been held that met international standards of justice.

The verdict took into account mitigating circumstances, which a court spokesman, Lars Olsen, said included Duch's cooperation, his admission of responsibility and limited expressions of remorse, the coercive environment of the Khmer Rouge period and the possibility of his rehabilitation.

There is no death penalty in Cambodia. Prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence, but many people had said they would accept nothing less than a life sentence for the man who presided over the Tuol Sleng prison, where people were tortured for confessions and then trucked to killing fields.

"People lost their relatives — their wives, their husbands, their sons and daughters — and they won't be able to spend any time with any of them because they are dead now," said Nina You, 40, who works for a private development agency. "So why should he be able to get out in 19 years and spend time with his grandchildren?"

But Huy Vannak, a TV news director, said it was enough simply to have justice in a court, 30 years after the killing stopped. No sentence could measure up to the atrocities Duch committed, he said.

"Even if we chop him up into 2 million pieces it will not bring our family members back," he said. "We have to move on now."

Others still needed more time. Sopheap Pich, 29, a sculptor, said, "Actually, I'm kind of shaking inside at the moment. I'm not sure how I should feel. I'm not happy, not sad, just kind of numb."

For its symbolism, he said, a life sentence would seem most appropriate. "To come up with a number doesn't seem to make sense," he said. "I'm not sure how you come up with a number."


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