Phnom Penh: The man who admitted to overseeing the torture and killing of 16,000 people as the Khmer Rouge`s chief prison warden returned to the courtroom on Monday in Cambodia to appeal his 19-year prison sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Kaing Guek Eav — also known as Duch — is the only person so far to be tried by a special UN-backed tribunal set up to investigate and prosecute officials from the brutal ultra-Marxist regime whose four-year rule in the 1970s led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.
The 68-year-old Duch was sentenced last July to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the sentenced was commuted to 19 years due to time already served and other technicalities.
Defence lawyers have argued that Duch was wrongfully convicted because the tribunal — known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — was supposed to try only senior Khmer Rouge leaders. They argue that Duch was not a top leader and was merely following orders.
Duch briefly told the court on Monday that his case hinged on "personal jurisdiction" — that is, whether the court had authority to prosecute him. He then sat impassively as his lawyer spoke.
"Duch was the chairman of a prison guard, of a security centre. How could he be considered to be one of those most responsible for the crimes?," defence lawyer Kar Savuth said. "He was of course a perpetrator, but he received orders from his superiors like at other prisons."
Kar argued that Duch was a victim of selective prosecution, since the court has not sought to indict chiefs of the Khmer Rouge`s other 195 prisons, where he said far more people died than under Duch.
"Duch was just a minor secretary who had no real authority to make any real decisions or do anything contradictory to the orders of the upper echelon," Kar Savuth said.
Prosecutors and others have widely criticised the sentence as too lenient. Prosecutors have filed a separate appeal and were scheduled to present their arguments after the defence, with the proceedings scheduled to end by midweek. A ruling was expected "in the next few months”, said tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath.
Victims and relatives of the Khmer Rouge have expressed outrage by the sentence, which could allow Duch to one day walk free.
During his 77-day trial, Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people who passed through the gates of the notorious Toul Sleng prison — also known as S-21 — in Phnom Penh. Prisoners were accused of being enemies of the regime, and many were tortured into making false confessions. Torture methods included pulling out prisoners` toenails, administering electric shocks and waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning.
The hearings will once again focus attention on the UN court as it gears up for another trial later this year of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders: Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge`s chief ideologist; Khieu Samphan, its former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs.
Critics say the tribunal — 10 years and USD 100 million in the making — has been too slow to investigate potential suspects and bring them to trial. The four leaders scheduled to stand trial in June are all in their 70s and 80s and in poor health.
The court has also faced allegations of corruption and has been stonewalled by the current Cambodian government headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge military commander. Hun Sen has vehemently fought the tribunal`s efforts to bring more Khmer Rouge officials to justice, arguing that such moves could destabilise the poor country.
The Khmer Rouge`s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.