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Khmer Rouge torture chief to appeal: Is he a chameleon or a contrite Christian?

Khmer Rouge torture chief 'Duch' converted to Christianity after overseeing the deaths in Cambodia of some 17,000 people in the late 1970s. He now plans to appeal a 19-year prison sentence, leading victims and even his own pastor to believe his invocations of Jesus Christ were a ploy to gain leniency in court.

By Jared FerrieCorrespondent / July 26, 2010

Journalists watch Khmer Rouge torture chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as 'Duch', on a television screen as a live feed is transmitted during the court session to announce his verdict at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Monday.

Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Math wiz, high school teacher, communist ideologue, born-again Christian, aid worker, contrite confessor, and mass murderer.

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These were some of the roles played over the past three decades by Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name, “Duch.”

Now an international war crimes tribunal has given the former Khmer Rouge prison chief a new title: war criminal.

A United Nations-backed tribunal today found Duch (pronounced Doik) guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as head of Cambodia's S-21 prison camp in Phnom Penh, where some 17,000 people were tortured and executed.

Judges handed down a sentence Monday that could allow the 67-year-old walk free after serving 19 years, angering many Cambodians who wanted the killer jailed for life. Moreover, Duch's defense team said Tuesday that he will appeal against his conviction.

Critics say the court case has provided little comfort to those still struggling to understand this chameleon-like figure who rose rapidly through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge to become the regime’s chief executioner.

KHMER ROUGE EXECUTIONER found guilty, but Cambodians say sentence too light

Indeed, the question still remains: Who was Duch?

Still playing chameleon?

When considering their verdict, judges said they took into account mitigating factors including Duch’s expressions of remorse, his admission of guilt, and his cooperation with the court. But many ordinary Cambodians doubt Duch's sincerity, and even people in close contact with him say that he may have once again played the chameleon.

"He only apologised to the judges. Duch didn't apologize to the victims," Chum Mey, 79, told Agence France-Presse. He was one of only seven survivors of Duch's torture prison.

Even Him Huy, a former guard at Duch’s S-21 prison, suggests that judges were hoodwinked into believing Duch had truly taken responsibility for his crimes. In a telephone interview, he says he thinks Duch’s admission of guilt was a ploy.

To Mr. Him, Duch’s pleas for forgiveness and his promise to cooperate fully with the court were “tricks” designed to curry favor with the judges so that he would receive a more lenient sentence.

Mr. Him, one of 24 witnesses to give testimony during the 72-day trial, testified last year that as chief of S-21 Duch said the majority of Cambodians deserved to be killed because they failed to adequately support the Khmer Rouge.

A staunch revolutionary

If that was truly Duch’s belief, he certainly did his best to live up to it. Under his supervision, as many as 17,000 people were tortured into confessing that they were part of an elaborate network of spies bent on undermining the Khmer Rouge’s Utopian Maoist revolution. Duch spun a paranoid web of imagined intrigue in which anyone from a peasant to a high-ranking official could be working undercover for the KGB, CIA, or the Vietnamese, according to court testimony.

In the court's ruling today, the judges said that Duch "possessed and exercised significant authority at S-21 and that his conduct in carrying out his functions showed a high degree of efficiency and zeal. He worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors."

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