- Associated Press - Monday, July 26, 2010

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia | A U.N.-backed tribunal sentenced the Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer to 35 years for overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people — the first verdict involving a senior member of the “killing fields” regime that devastated a generation of Cambodians.

Victims and their relatives burst into tears after learning that Kaing Guek Eav — also known as Duch (pronounced DOIK) — actually will serve just 19 years after being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity after taking into account time already served and other factors.

That means the 67-year-old could one day walk free, a prospect that infuriated many who have been demanding justice for victims of the regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979.

“I can’t accept this,” said Saodi Ouch, 46, shaking so hard she could hardly talk. “My family died … my older sister, my older brother. I’m the only one left.”

More than three decades after the ultracommunist Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population while trying to turn the country into a vast agrarian collective, Duch is so far the only person to face justice.

The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998, and four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are awaiting trial for their part in the deaths from execution, starvation, medical neglect and slavelike working conditions.

The U.N.-backed tribunal — 10 years and $100 million in the making — said it took into consideration the historical context of the atrocities: The regime was the product of the troubled Cold War times.

It also recognized that Duch, who headed Tuol Sleng, a secret detention center for the worst “enemies” of the state, was not a member of the Khmer Rouge’s inner clique and that he had cooperated with the court, admitted responsibility and showed “limited” expressions of remorse.

During the 77-day proceedings, Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 people who passed through the prison’s gates. Torture used to extract confessions included pulling out prisoners’ toenails, administering electric shocks and waterboarding.

At least 100 people bled to death in medieval-style medical experiments.

One of the tribunal’s international judges, Silvia Cartwright, said she understood that those who lived through the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror may be upset at the sentence.

“That’s one of the reasons that we have an objective tribunal … fixing as balanced a sentence as we can,” she said. “If left to the victims to decide how to punish a person, then it would be, possibly, mob rule.”

“You have to bear in mind that victims are very deeply hurt and traumatized,” she added. “We can never give them what they lost … so a sentence can only ever be symbolic in a way.”

The prosecution and defense have one month to appeal.