A survivor of “S-21” Tuol Sleng prison holds up a newspaper page with a picture of senior Khmer Rouge leader Kaing Gech Eav, also known as Duch, whose trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) concluded with a verdict on July 26, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(Phnom Penh) - Today's guilty verdict by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal in the trial of the chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison is an important step in the search for justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, Human Rights Watch said today.

Kaing Gech Eav, 67, known as Duch, is the first of five former Khmer Rouge leaders currently facing trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). During his eight-month trial he admitted responsibility for many of the horrific crimes committed while he presided over Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 14,000 people were tortured and sent to their deaths during Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979.

Duch, who was arrested in 1999 prior to establishment of the United Nations-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The court ruled that five years are to be deducted from his sentence for his "illegal detention" by Cambodia's military court before his transfer to the ECCC in 2007. Accounting for time already served, Duch now faces 19 more years in prison.

"While it's taken more than 30 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge for justice to be done, this does not detract from the importance of finally holding Duch accountable for his crimes," said Sara Colm, Cambodia-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But it will take much more than today's verdict to achieve real justice for the Cambodian people who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule."

Although the tribunal's mandate is to try "senior leaders" and "others most responsible" for atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, politically motivated interference by the Cambodian government could derail additional crucial indictments and trials, Human Rights Watch said.

The trials of the four other indicted Khmer Rouge leaders, who were much higher up than Duch in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, are expected to raise more complex legal and factual issues, which makes those trials more vulnerable to improper pressure. Undue interference may also be preventing the tribunal from calling witnesses and carrying out investigations of additional suspects.

The Cambodian government appears to be behind decisions to block additional indictments, Human Rights Watch said. In January 2009, for instance, the Cambodian co-prosecutor, Chea Leang, cited political considerations - not lack of evidence or points of law - in rejecting submission of six additional suspects by the international co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, to the tribunal's caseload. These considerations included Cambodia's "past instability" and the "need for national reconciliation."

While the pre-trial chamber ruled in August 2009 for the submission of additional cases to go forward, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top leaders made numerous statements before and after the ruling in which they asserted that the court would not prosecute more than the five suspects currently in custody. For example, in a public speech in March 2009, Hun Sen said he would rather see the tribunal fail than have war return to Cambodia as a result of additional trials.

"I would pray for this court to run out of money and for the foreign judges and prosecutors to walk out," Hun Sen said.

Human Rights Watch urged the UN and the tribunal's international donors to be much more vocal in opposing inroads into the tribunal's independence.

"Up to two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge's horrific rule, yet the government is refusing to hold more than five people to account," Colm said. "The UN and the tribunal's international donors should not allow political interference with the court to undermine its credibility."

The four other former Khmer Rouge leaders in custody awaiting trial are Nuon Chea, who was the deputy to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader; the Khmer Rouge foreign minister, Ieng Sary; the head of state, Khieu Samphan; and the social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith.

The UN-backed tribunal, based in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, was established in 2006 as a special chamber within the Cambodian judicial system.  It is a "hybrid" tribunal consisting of both Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors.