By Brendan Brady/Phnom Penh

SLIGHT, well-kempt and dressed in khakis and a powder-blue shirt, the man sitting in the dock cut the image of a schoolteacher. Indeed he once taught maths—in the years before he assumed control of a centre where more than 14,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and then transmitted to “the killing fields”. The defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, was the commandant of the Khmers Rouges’ infamous S-21 detention centre. On Monday, a UN-backed tribunal found him guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Duch is now 67 years old. On July 26th he was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, effectively reduced to 19 years, against time already served and in compensation for a period of illegal detention by a military court. Reading a prepared statement, a judge told a courtroom packed with journalists and observers, including the hundreds of the regime’s surviving victims, that Duch’s offenses were “shocking and heinous”. But the judge also described considerations that he said argued against the maximum punishment of life in prison: that Duch had been following orders within a coercive climate, that he expressed some remorse, and that he co-operated with the tribunal and showed a potential for rehabilitation. The prosecutors had sought 40 years. Cambodia no longer uses the death penalty.

Most Cambodians in attendance thought the sentence unconscionably lenient. Chum Mey, one of a handful of S-21 survivors, seemed distraught as he spoke with reporters outside the court: “I cannot accept the court’s decision. I’ve lost confidence [in the tribunal]. I am worried that Duch will one day walk free.” Theary Seng, a Cambodian-born American lawyer whose parents died under the Khmers Rouges, said that a sentence that amounts to only 19 more years in prison could “embed scepticism” in the public’s attitude towards the tribunal. Attention is already focusing on the tribunal’s next actions.

Human-rights groups and scholars preferred to emphasise that justice had been served, at long last. Moreover, they would have it, Duch’s trial might be held up as positive model for the Cambodian judiciary. “I think that, eventually, we will look back on this as a positive day,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “My father was also killed at that time and I was personally disappointed with the sentence. But it addresses impunity…and the display of proper legal proceedings can have a good influence” on Cambodia. Duch’s conviction marks the first time a Khmer Rouge official has been held accountable for his role in the genocide.

S-21 played only a relatively small part in implementing the ultra-Maoist regime’s radical vision. From Phnom Penh, the capital, to the hinterland, the larger project had been to turn the country into an agrarian utopia by forcing the population onto collective farms and banning money, schools and religion. In the process, from 1975 to 1979, an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed. The terror ended only when a Vietnamese-led force toppled the Khmers Rouges.

During six months of hearings last year, victims’ families watched from the public gallery as Duch explained his role in the Khmer Rouge security apparatus. Many in the audience thought his testimony selective and self-serving. He did profess contrition and said he wanted to co-operate with the court. But families had come expecting answers about how and why their loved ones had been exterminated. They had to settle for a mixture of remorse, sometimes implausible claims of ignorance and, at times, even condescension.

Their frustration had turned to outrage in November when, in his hearings’ closing moments, the defendant demanded to be set free. All of a sudden Duch began to question the legitimacy of his trial. It was a puzzling reversal. Nic Dunlop, the Irish journalist who discovered Duch living underground in 1999—and exposed him—said that somehow “he seemed to be arrogant and contrite at once.”

It remains uncertain how many more Khmers Rouges will face trial. Four of their highest-ranking leaders await trial but they are old and infirm. Those proceedings, scheduled for next year, would be far more complicated than this one. Unlike Duch, who left a meticulous paper trail at S-21 and acknowledged many of his own doings, the movement’s leaders enacted their policies through proxies and have made no admissions or apologies. The process itself is hindered by the prosaic problems of gathering a heterogeneous assembly of judges, lawyers and administrators from Cambodia and around the world to work together effectively. Meanwhile charges of political interference and corruption dog the tribunal, and the donors who have paid for its work are growing weary.

[Published by The Economist.com on July 27, 2010]