Among US-Cambodians, this week's sentencing of Kaing Kek Iev, the Khmer Rouge torture chief better known as Duch, brought with it mixed emotions.
Tears, sobs and disappointment combined with endeavors toward calm among the immigrant community, after Duch was handed a commuted sentence of 19 years for the torture and execution of more than 12,000 people at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
“I think this is an injustice, to reduce his sentence to 19 years,” said Kuch Chanly, a Cambodian resident of Maryland.
Judges at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal issued a 35-year sentence that was reduced for time served on Monday in a landmark case for the court. But that sentence did little to allay Kuch Chanly's mistrust of the tribunal.
“From the beginning, I never trusted this court, which has been conducted in Cambodia, in a place controlled by the former Khmer Rouge themselves,” he said. “Millions of Cambodian victims like myself, who lost both parents, siblings, uncles, aunties, nieces and nephews, must consider taking legal action and peaceful action to demand a retrial from this court so that we can get a fair trial.”
The tribunal's mandate is to try the senior-most leaders of the regime, but there are in fact members of the government who were lower-ranking cadre. A 1998 amnesty for the Khmer Rouge, which brought peace to a protracted civil war, also brought many Khmer Rouge under the government.
Duch, now 67, was the first to be tried under the new court, which formed in 2006 after years of wrangling between the government and the UN.
“When I heard the verdict, I found it hard to believe that he had this day,” said Him Chanrithy, the author of a Khmer Rouge memoir. She wept as she discussed the sentencing, issued Monday in a public declaration at the court outside Phnom Penh.
“I think the sentence handed down to him was too little,” she said. “But in another thought, I feel that my parents and other Khmers who were killed have begun to receive some justice now, after a long wait.”
Not everyone disapproved of the sentencing.
“We Cambodian-Americans living in the US are happy to see that the court has sentenced Duch for his crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Yap Kimtung, president of the group Cambodian-Americans for Human Rights and Democracy. “Either 35 or 19 years is acceptable,” he said. “The main point is that we have seen the culprit punished at last.”
“This verdict is right, but for those who suffered under the regime, it is not yet enough,” said Sok Nen, president of the Cambodian Association in Illinois. “However, we have to follow what is the judge's decision.”
The reach of Khmer Rouge trauma went well beyond Cambodia. Those who fled the regime and settled in the US experience trauma as acutely as the survivors who remained behind.
“Many of my patients and those known by my colleagues called us up and said this trial was just a joke,” said Kuoch Theanvy, executive director of the Khmer Health Advocates Inc., which is based in the US. “Some of my clients cried on the phone and told me the judgement had not delivered justice for them.”