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 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 U.N.-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 sentence was commuted to 19 years due to time already served and other technicalities. The sentence was widely criticized as too lenient. Victims and relatives of the Khmer Rouge have expressed outrage by the sentence, which could allow Duch to one day walk free.
Defense 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 Monday that his case hinged on "personal jurisdiction" — that is, whether the court had authority to prosecute him. He then sat impassively as his lawyers spoke.
"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," defense lawyer Kar Savuth said.
"He was of course a perpetrator, but he received orders from his superiors like at other prisons," he said. "How could he be considered to be one of those most responsible for the crimes?"
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.
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.
Prosecutors have also appealed the sentence, seeking life in prison for Duch, and were scheduled to present their appeal Tuesday.
On Monday, prosecutors rebutted the defense arguments, saying Duch's lawyers should have raised the question of "personal jurisdiction" during the trial phase and that Duch's indictment was legitimate because S-21 was the Khmer Rouge's largest and most important prison.
"S-21 was operated as a tool by the security apparatus to smash any (subversives) in its ranks," prosecutor Chea Leang told the court. "S-21 had the scope to cover the whole country. It was the only center that provided advice and coordinated the smashes of the people in coordination with the administration and the military across the country."
A ruling is expected "in the next few months," said tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath.
The appeals will once again focus attention on the U.N. 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 $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 destabilize the poor country.
The Khmer Rouge's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.