Notorious Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, died in the early morning on September 2 at age 77 in a hospital in Phnom Penh. The former chief of Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh was serving out a life sentence at Kandal Provincial Prison after he was found guilty by the Khmer Rouge tribunal of crimes against humanity, mass murder, and torture in 2010.
He was the first member of the Khmer Rouge leadership to face trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for his role in the radical Communist revolution that led to the deaths of at least 1.7 million.
The Kandal Provincial Court issued a statement confirming his death from lung disease complicated by pneumonia at 12:51 am at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh.
“The result of the examination showed that the death was caused by a chronic lung condition”, the statement said, adding that his body had been inspected by a team of doctors, health officials, with prison officials and a court prosecutor present.
His body was cremated in the afternoon at Chak Angre Krom pagoda in Phnom Penh, with several of his family members in attendance.
After the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, Duch was appointed deputy chief of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where suspected opponents of Pol Pot’s regime were tortured to death. On orders from Duch, prisoners at the converted secondary school facility, also known as S-21, were forced to confess to the crimes they had been accused of by their captors, with lengthy reports of their confessions kept on record.
It is estimated that more than 12,000 people were tortured to death at the facility between 1976 and the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, with only 12 survivors. Their bodies were taken from the compound and disposed of at the Choeng Ek Killing Fields site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Khmer Rouge research institution Documentation Center of Cambodia and a survivor of the regime, said he regretted that Duch had not accepted responsibility for his actions.
“What we have lost with his death is that Duch was never honest in recognizing what he did,” he said. “He still denied his role and said it was on orders from the organization.”
He added that he feels no remorse at the prison commander’s death, as more than 10,000 people had died under his command.
“However, it’s important that his death can remind us all that if someone commits a crime against another person, justice will follow us until we die, and we cannot escape from justice,” Chhang said.
He emphasized that in accordance with the tribunal’s decision, Duch should have admitted wrongdoing.
“He is a person who had brothers, sisters and children like everyone else. He is not different from other people but he took on more responsibility as a leader and he cannot erase his past, which has become a lesson for younger generations to learn from,” Chhang said.
Guek Eav was born on November 17, 1942, in Kampong Thom province’s Poevveuy village, according to information from the ECCC.
Duch, who worked as a mathematics teacher as a young man, was allegedly drawn toward communism, joining the Khmer Rouge in 1967 and serving from 1971 to 1975 as chairman of the M-13 prison in Kampong Speu, where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and executed people captured in regions they controlled at the time.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch allegedly remained with the Khmer Rouge and lived along the border with Thailand in Battambang province for more than a decade before returning to teaching in the early 1990s and converting to Christianity in 1995. While residing in Battambang province’s Samlot district, he was tracked down by a journalist in 1999 and gave an interview to the Cambodian correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review which led to his arrest that year.
After spending eight years detained at Phnom Penh’s military prison, he was transferred to the ECCC detention center on July 31, 2007.
Hearings in Duch’s case began in March 2009. He stood accused of crimes against humanity including persecution on political grounds, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment and torture, and numerous breaches of the Geneva Conventions, the court said.
Throughout his trial and appeal between 2009 and 2012 and in a subsequent appearance at the court in 2016 for the trial of co-accused Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and Head of State Khieu Samphan, Duch appeared unrepentant for his actions and remained largely devoid of emotion. The prison chief was also often quick to blame his superiors for orders to torture and “smash” those held at the center.
On July 26, 2010, the court found Duch guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, sentencing him to 35 years.
The defense appealed the verdict, arguing that Duch was not among those most responsible for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, while the prosecution appealed seeking a stronger sentencing. The tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber began hearings in the appeal in March 2011, and handed down a life sentence in February the following year. He was transferred from the tribunal’s detention facility to Kandal Provincial Prison to serve out his sentence on June 6, 2013.
Kuy No, chief of the Intensive Care Unit at Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital, said Duch was admitted on August 31 to treat severe pneumonia, which was complicated by chronic lung disease brought on by a lifetime of smoking.
“His high blood pressure was not a serious problem when he met with me, but he had a weak respiratory system,” No said before declining to give specific details on Duch’s cause of death.
Kandal Provincial Prison Director Chab Sineang could not be reached for comment.
The statement from the Kandal provincial court said that Duch had been hospitalized with lung problems four times since he was sent to Kandal provincial prison in 2013.
Duch’s youngest daughter Siv Kim said at the pagoda after the cremation on September 2 that she and her husband traveled from Battambang province’s Samlot district to retrieve her father’s ashes.
“I agreed to cremate the body here,” she said, before declining to comment further.
Kim’s husband, who declined to give his name, said the family had decided not to follow tradition by cremating his body in Samlot, because it would be difficult to transport the body. He confirmed that his father in law Duch had four children but one had died.
“The road is difficult,” Kim’s husband said, adding, “My relatives are poor.”
Hem Kosal, deputy director of Kandal provincial prison confirmed that Duch’s ashes had been transported to Samlot district in the afternoon.
Hong Kimsuon, a lawyer who represented victims of the Khmer Rouge at the ECCC, said Duch’s death was easy compared to those who suffered under his leadership at Tuol Sleng.
“Related to the torturing of victims by the Khmer Rouge regime, [his death] is not comparable because they were in Tuol Sleng prison before they died, they were pressured and tortured very tragedy,” Kimsuon said. “In comparison, Duch was luckier than them.”