In tribunal’s press room, Duch appears on live feed. (Brendan Brady)

By Brendan Brady

Phnom Penh — SLIGHT, well-kempt in grey trousers and a powder-blue shirt, the man in the dock cut the image of an ageing schoolteacher. In fact he had taught maths in the years before the Khmers Rouges seized power in Cambodia. Then he assumed a far more terrifying role: as commandant of the S-21 detention centre, overseeing the torture of some 14,000 adults and children, before they were carted off to the “killing fields”. On July 26th the ex-teacher, Kaing Guek Eav, became the first Khmer Rouge official to pay for his part in the genocide of 1975-79, when some 2m people died: a UN-backed tribunal convicted him of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and jailed him for 35 years.

Comrade Duch, as he is better known, will serve only another 19 years because of time he has already spent behind bars and as compensation for a spell of illegal detention before he got to the tribunal. One of the five judges called his offences “shocking and heinous”, but also noted how the defendant had followed orders in a coercive climate, and had since co-operated with the tribunal and shown remorse.

Most Cambodians at the trial thought the sentence unconscionably lenient. Speaking outside of the tribunal, Chum Mey, one of only a handful of survivors of S-21, which was also known as Tuol Sleng, said: “I cannot accept the court’s decision”. Nor could Duch, who will appeal. He had been contrite and compliant for much of the trial, but during closing arguments in November he changed tack, rejecting the court and demanding to be let go.

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[Published in The Economist on July 29, 2010]