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'Comrade Duch,' Infamous Commander Of Khmer Rouge Prison, Dies In Cambodia

Sep 2, 2020

The commander of a notorious Khmer Rouge prison where thousands of people were executed and tortured during the communist regime's brutal rule over Cambodia in the 1970s, has died at age 77.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, was serving life in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity when he died early Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the tribunal that found him guilty in 2010.

He had been ill for years, and the spokesman provided no details on the cause of death.

Duch led the regime's Tuol Sleng prison, code-named S-21. He was one of the few Khmer Rouge officials to admit any responsibility for the 1975-79 genocide that ultimately left 1.7 million Cambodians dead from execution, overwork or starvation.

Only a handful of inmates survived their time in Tuol Sleng, a fact that he himself acknowledged during his war crimes trial. An estimated 14,000 people died there during the Khmer Rouge rule, some of them regime officials accused of disloyalty.

In sometimes chilling testimony before a United Nations-backed tribunal in 2009, Duch, a former school teacher who was the first senior Khmer Rouge official to face trial, tearfully apologized to the families of victims and testified that those who arrived at Tuol Sleng had little hope of ever leaving.

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"Everyone who was arrested and sent to S-21 was presumed dead already," he said.

The tribunal heard graphic testimony of torture at the prison that included the use of electric shocks, burning with hot metal and ripping out of toenails to extract forced confessions of often fabricated crimes.

Photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of some of the thousands of people held at Tuol Sleng, a former school in Phnom Penh turned into a torture center and death chamber during the fanatical communist movement's 1975-79 rule of Cambodia.
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But Duch faced justice only after trying to hide from it for two decades following the 1979 toppling of the Khmer Rouge after an invasion by neighboring Vietnam. In 1999, he was found by a journalist who tracked him down in a remote region of Cambodia.

In the years between the fall of the Khmer Rouge government and his discovery, Duch had converted to Christianity. After his capture, he publicly asked for forgiveness.

Even so, he and his legal team mounted an aggressive defense at the tribunal, sometimes quibbling over technicalities that might weigh in his favor and ultimately asking the court for an acquittal, which did not come.

Duch's death follows the death of Nuon Chea nearly a year ago. Nuon Chea, who died at 93, had served as Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's chief lieutenant. Known as "Brother No. 2," he was considered a chief architect of the regime's genocide.

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