Khmer Rouge war-crimes trial of prison chief Duch closes in surprise twist
The Khmer Rouge war-crimes trial for regime leader Duch ended with a plea for acquittal. Some say the UN tribunal is in danger of falling apart due to political interference.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In a surprising plea on the final day of statements at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal Friday, a prison chief asked judges to release him, claiming he was not a high-ranking member of the regime.Skip to next paragraph
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Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre, "Duch," was in charge of the S-21 prison, where he oversaw the torture and execution of approximately 15,000 people.
Prosecution lawyers have asked for a 40-year sentence for the 67-year old, arguing that Duch was a key intelligence operative (to read about his transformation from Khmer Rouge torturer born-again Christian, click here). Defense lawyers pleaded for leniency, suggesting that their client has been made a scapegoat.They have noted that S-21 was one of a network of similar prisons, and pointed out that Duch is the only one of the four suspects currently facing charges to admit his role in atrocities committed by the regime.
Duch's request for acquittal was an unexpected twist in a trial that has been cathartic for Cambodians who suffered under the brutal regime, which killed as many as 2 million of its own citizens between 1975 and 1979. But some say the UN-backed tribunal is in danger of falling apart due to political interference from Cambodian officials, who are worried about compromising information emerging from testimonies in the trials of the remaining suspects, all of whom were members of the inner circle of Khmer Rouge leadership.
"I have a feeling this is the only trial we're going to get," said David Chandler, an expert on the Khmer Rouge who first arrived in Cambodia as an American diplomat in 1960 and now teaches at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Sharp departure for Duch
Duch's last-minute plea for release was a sharp departure from his previous nine months of testimony, during which he consistently took responsibility for crimes at S-21 and begged forgiveness from his victims. As late as Wednesday, he said he felt "excruciating remorse." But Duch has also argued that he and his family would have been killed if he had not followed orders to root out imagined spies through false confessions extracted by torture, even though he knew his orders were criminal.
At a speaking event on Tuesday, the former head of the S-21 prison guard unit, Him Huy, painted a more sinister picture of Duch as a man devoted to Khmer Rouge ideology. He alleged that his former boss had stated that the majority of Cambodians were antirevolutionary and should therefore be exterminated.
"Duch said he only wanted to keep 3 million Cambodian people, and all the rest should be killed," claimed Mr. Him.