Khmer Rouge chief jailer guilty of war crimes dies at 77

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The Khmer Rouge chief jailer, who admitted to overseeing the torture and murder of 16,000 Cambodians while in charge of the regime’s most notorious prison, has died. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was 77 years old and was serving a life sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He died in a hospital in Cambodia early Wednesday morning, said Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the Phnom Penh tribunal responsible for trials into the regime’s crimes.

Duch was admitted to the Cambodian Soviet Friendship Hospital after developing breathing difficulties on Monday at Kandal Provincial Prison, said Chat Sineang, head of the prison where Duch was transferred from the court’s penitentiary in 2013. He added that the body would be examined for a cause of death before being handed over to his family.

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Duch, whose trial took place in 2009, was the first Khmer Rouge high-ranking figure to face the UN-backed tribunal that was convened to do justice to the regime’s brutal regime in the late 1970s, responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people. – a quarter of the population of Cambodia at the time.

The Communist Khmer Rouge regime which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 was accused of genocide for causing the deaths of so many of their compatriots due to executions, starvation and lack of medical care due to its radical policy. It was only after neighboring Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power that the extent and barbarity of their rule became absolutely clear.

Norng Chan Phal, who survived internment at Tuol Sleng prison known as S-21, looks at skulls on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP – Getty Images

As the commander of the top-secret Tuol Sleng prison, named S-21, Duch was one of the few ex-Khmer Rouge who admitted even partial responsibility for his actions, and his trial included his own heartbreaking testimony about the way people were tortured. in jail. The Phnom Penh site, which was a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge came to power, is today a museum with amazing evidence of the cruelty with which the Khmer Rouge persecuted even its own members whom they accused of disloyalty. .

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Men, women and children considered enemies of the regime or having disobeyed its orders were imprisoned and tormented there, and only a handful survived.

“Everyone who was arrested and sent to S-21 was already presumed dead,” he said in April 2009.

Since Duch’s trial, the court has sentenced two senior Khmer Rouge leaders at the top, while two other defendants died before their trial was completed. The regime’s No. 2 leader, Nuon Chea, died during his appeal process. The tribunal, created in 2004 by an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government, cost more than $ 360 million.

The other whose appeal is under consideration, former head of state Khieu Samphan, will almost certainly be the last to stand trial, due to the Cambodian government’s opposition to further prosecution. Senior Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 as a prisoner of his comrades in what had become an exhausted force of jungle-based guerrillas.

Youk Chhang, head of the Cambodia Documentation Center, which has assembled a large archive of the country’s tragedy, said that Duch’s death “reminds us all to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge. And this justice remains a difficult road for Cambodia. “

Torturers under Duch beat and whipped prisoners and shocked them with electrical devices, Duch admitted in court, but he nevertheless denied testimony from survivors and other witnesses in the trial that he himself had participated. to torture and executions. The offspring of the inmates were killed to prevent the next generation from taking revenge. Duch called himself “criminally responsible” for the deaths of babies but blamed his subordinates for beating the young bodies against the trees.

A visitor walks past a photo of Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Duch,” at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June.Samrang Pring File / Reuters

He said the prison’s own guards and interrogators were killed for small mistakes and showed rare emotion on the witness stand in June 2009 when speaking of seeing his revolutionary comrades locked in his prison cells. Confessing to betraying his own friends, he said: “It was beyond the coward.

When a guilty verdict was finally handed down against him in July 2010, he was sentenced to 35 years, reduced to just 19 years because of the time served. The judges said they considered the Cold War backdrop of atrocities and Duch’s cooperation and expressions of remorse, however limited. But outraged survivors feared he would one day be able to walk freely. On appeal, the sentence was extended in 2012 to life imprisonment for his “shocking and heinous” crimes against the Cambodian people.

Like many key members of the Khmer Rouge, Duch was an academic before he became a revolutionary. The former math professor joined Pol Pot’s movement in 1967, three years before the United States began bombing Cambodia in an attempt to eliminate troops from northern Vietnam and the Viet Cong inside the border.

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and immediately attempted a radical transformation of Cambodia into a peasant society, emptying towns and forcing people to work the land in the country they renamed Democratic Kampuchea. They supported their rule with the ruthless elimination of perceived enemies, and by 1976, Duch was the trusted leader of his ultimate killing machine, S-21.

Tribunal judges said he had approved all executions in that country and was often present when interrogators used torture to obtain confessions, including tearing toenails from prisoners’ feet, administering shocks electric and waterboarding. Despite his denials, judges said he himself had sometimes participated in torture and executions.

The tortures and executions that took place in Tuol Sleng were regularly recorded and photographed, and when the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979, the thousands of documents and film negatives left in the prison became evidence of atrocities of the regime.

Duch fled, disappeared for nearly two decades in northwest Cambodia, and converted to Christianity until a chance discovery by a British journalist in 1999 led to his arrest.

Duch has repeatedly asked for forgiveness, even offering at one point to face public stoning. But his surprise request on the last day of the trial to be acquitted and released has left many wondering whether his contrition was genuine.

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