By: Billy Dean Valentine
Pace International Law Review, Editor in Chief
For 30 years since the vicious Khmer Rouge command was driven from power, Cambodians have lived with unsettled trauma, with skulls and bones from killing fields still lying in the open and with parents hiding the pain of their past from their children. In Julyt, Cambodia took a significant step toward addressing its harsh past with the first conviction of a major Khmer Rouge figure in connection with the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979.
But some survivors were upset over what they saw as a soft sentence, one that could possibly allow the defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, 67, commonly known as Duch, to walk free one day. A United Nations-backed court found Duch, the commandant of the central Khmer Rouge prison, Tuol Sleng, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 35 years in prison for overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 people. The court reduced that term to 19 years because of time already served and in compensation for a period of illegal military detention.
“People lost their relatives — their wives, their husbands, their sons and daughters — and they won’t be able to spend any time with any of them because they are dead now,” said Nina You, 40, who works for a private development agency. “So why should he be able to get out in 19 years and spend time with his grandchildren?”
It was the first time in Cambodia’s modern history that a senior government official had been made accountable for serious human rights violations and the first time such a trial had been held that met international standards of justice.