Tears and disbelief at Duch verdict

Newspaper showing a picture of jailed ex-prison chief Duch The verdict in the case of Duch was broadcast live on radio and television

First came the verdict. Then the disbelief. Finally the outrage.

The idea that a man who admitted overseeing the torture and murder of thousands of people might be free in 19 years was too much for some people who lived through the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

At least one man left the court in disgust on hearing the sentence.

Chum Mey has more reason than most to feel bitter. He was held in the S-21 detention centre which Comrade Duch ran, and suffered regular torture; his wife and children were killed.

Now he is one of only three confirmed living survivors of around 15,000 inmates.

On the steps outside the court, he vented his frustration.

"I ask if Cambodians are happy and the world is happy that millions of people died, a lot of money has been spent on the court - and the perpetrator is free [in 19 years]? I am not happy with that," he said.

Unreadable

Hundreds of people had come from across Cambodia to see Duch's day of judgement. Many of them were clearly old enough to have personal experience of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Cham Muslims watch the verdict in Phnom Penh Representatives of groups persecuted by the Khmer Rouge were among those watching the verdict

In a makeshift café outside the main court building, Cham Muslims wearing white skull-caps joined orange-robed Buddhist monks. The avowedly-atheist Khmer Rouge had specifically targeted both groups.

Hundreds more people packed inside the trial chamber itself.

Duch stood with his back to them as the verdict was announced - his face only visible on TV screens either side of the stage on which the judges and lawyers sat.

At the crucial moment, the monitors cut to a wide shot, making Duch's expression unreadable as he was sentenced.

There were no such problems interpreting Theary Seng's feelings.

As a child she was held in a Khmer Rouge detention centre along with her mother and siblings. Neither of her parents survived the Pol Pot era.

Theary Seng Theary Seng says the verdict will undermine faith in the tribunal process

A combination of fury and despair crossed her face as she discussed the verdict and Duch's sentence.

"Crimes against humanity has been reduced to 11 hours per life. Besides shock, what else can one feel at the moment?" she said, her voice shaking with emotion.

Ms Seng said the sentence was likely to increase levels of cynicism about the tribunal's ability to provide justice.

More questions

The Duch trial was the first test for a unique variant of international criminal tribunal.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are actually a national institution, but donor countries have funded the process and the United Nations appointed international judges and prosecutors to work alongside local counterparts.

The aim was to strengthen the much-maligned Cambodian court system, as well as to provide an international standard of justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cambodian co-prosecutor, Chea Leang, declared herself satisfied with the verdict and the prison term.

Elderly man watches the verdict with school-age children in Phnom Penh Cambodians hope the next trial will help explain what triggered the Khmer Rouge killing

"This sentence is a clear message to those who commit crimes," she said. "Those who took many lives cannot avoid justice."

The response of the international deputy co-prosecutor, Bill Smith, was rather more equivocal.

"The most important thing is that the judgement meets international standards of justice," he said.

"In light of the sentence, we will be reviewing the judgement, the finding of facts, and seeing whether or not there have been any errors."

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal will soon be facing an even greater challenge - the trial of the organisation's four most senior surviving former leaders.

Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan are all in custody, charged with genocide. The trial itself is unlikely to start until next year, and there have been concerns over the health of several of the elderly defendants.

The Duch trial has provided invaluable information to people who lived through the Pol Pot era. His detailed testimony during the public phase of the trial revealed details about the decision-making process of the Khmer Rouge leadership.

But the four senior leaders should be able to give a more complete account.

If they can be persuaded to talk, Cambodians might get the answer to their biggest question about the madness of the 1970s: Why did so many people have to die?

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