PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The Khmer Rouge tribunal's Supreme Court on Friday ordered the regime's chief jailer to serve out the rest of his life in prison because of his "shocking and heinous" crimes against the Cambodian people.
The surprise ruling increased a lower court's 19-year sentence that had been appealed by prosecutors as too lenient and that had outraged survivors who feared the man who oversaw the killing of thousands could one day walk free.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the first defendant to be tried by the tribunal. He was commander of Phnom Penh's top secret Tuol Sleng prison — code-named S-21. He admitted to overseeing the torture of his prisoners before sending them for execution at the "killing fields."
In July 2010, the tribunal's lower court convicted Duch (pronounced DOIK) of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and murder.
He was sentenced to 35 years in prison but had 11 years shaved off for time served and other technicalities. The sentence was appealed both by prosecutors, who called for life imprisonment, and by Duch, who argued it was too harsh because he was merely following orders.
However, Judge Kong Srim, president of the Supreme Court Chamber, said Friday that the upper court felt the penalty should be more severe because the former jailer was responsible for the brutal deaths of so many.
"The crimes of Kaing Guek Eav were of a particularly shocking and heinous character based on the number of people who were proven to have been killed," the judge said. The tribunal says Duch oversaw the deaths of at least 12,272 victims but estimates have placed the number as high as 16,000.
The court said the high number of deaths that Duch was responsible for and the extended period of time over which they were committed from 1975-1979 "undoubtedly place this case among the gravest before international criminal tribunals."
Andrew Cayley, the British co-prosecutor, said Duch can request a pardon after 20 years served; in this case, that will be about seven years from now.
Duch trained, ordered and supervised his staff to conduct "systematic torture and execution of prisoners" and he showed "dedication to refining the operations of S-21, which was the factory of death," the court said in a separate printed statement.
The 69-year-old Duch stood calmly without emotion as the sentence was read.
He then pressed his palms together and pulled them to his chest in a show of respect to the judge, before being led away by court guards. The ruling was final with no other chance for appeal.
Prosecutors called the ruling a long-awaited victory.
"We can say that justice has now been served after more than 30 years," Chea Leang said. "To us and to the victims, this is a great success."
The tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died from torture, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care during the Khmer Rouge's 1970s rule.
Three senior Khmer Rouge figures are currently on trial in what is known as Case 002. Unlike Duch, who admitted his role and asked for forgiveness, the others claim no wrongdoing.
They are 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister. They are accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture.