Kaing Khek Iev went to prison as the first leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Now he has died at the age of 77.
Kaing Khek Iev in the courtroom in Phnom Penh in 2008 Photo: Tang Chhinsothy/reuters
The notorious former Khmer Rouge torture chief is dead: Kaing Khek Iev, alias Duch, died at the age of 77 in a hospital in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a spokesman for the UN-backed tribunal announced Wednesday morning. The tribunal had sentenced him to life in prison more than eight years ago. According to the Phnom Penh Post newspaper, Duch had been admitted to a hospital in critical condition on Monday.
Kaing Khek Iev, a former math teacher, was considered one of the Khmer Rouge’s most brutal cadres. During their rule from 1975 to 1979, he was in charge of the "Tuol Sleng" torture prison known as "S 21." At least 15,000 men, women and children were tortured and murdered there. Nearly two million people died in total under the regime – they were brutalized, shot or starved to death.
In 1979, after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Duch fled with other officials to a jungle area near Thailand. Twenty years later, journalists tracked him down and Duch was arrested. He served about eight years in a military prison before being formally charged in 2007.
Duch was the first high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre to face legal charges. During the trial, he partially confessed to his actions and apologized to the victims: "I am full of deep remorse and shocked by such devastating destruction," he said in November 2009, at the same time stating that he had only carried out orders. Two days later, Duch then demanded his release. He had cooperated with the court and had already spent many years in prison.
Sentence: "life in prison"
In July 2010, Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison for crimes against humanity. Because he had been behind bars since his arrest, he was to be given several years off. Victims and prosecutors were shocked, but Duch himself felt the judge’s sentence was too harsh. Both sides appealed, and the sentence was drastically increased: In February 2012, the court sentence was "life in prison."
After five years of tough negotiations, Cambodia and the UN had agreed in June 2003 on the internationalized tribunal with a majority of local judges and prosecutors. After Duch, four more of the highest-ranking former officials were arrested.
Meanwhile, survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime remained skeptical that justice would ever be served: For Cambodia’s dictatorial head of government Hun Sen, himself an ex-Khmer Rouge officer who defected to the Vietnamese in 1977, had mocked who was actually to be tried for what.
On several occasions, Hun Sen had stated that he would not allow any further trials beyond the original five defendants. With the death of Duch, only one of them is still alive: Former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, now 89 years old.