PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, July 27 (UPI) -- A 67-year-old math teacher, Christian convert and Khmer Rouge cadre was given a 35-year jail sentence for crimes against humanity committed during Cambodia's darkest days.
Cambodia's United Nations'-backed war crimes tribunal handed down the sentence against Kaing Guek Eav. Prosecutors were seeking a 40-year sentence.
It was the court's first guilty verdict against a senior Khmer Rouge party figure for their part in the 4-year brutal Maoist regime that cost the lives of 2 million Cambodians.
During the regime's domination of Cambodia from 1975-79, Eav, commonly known as comrade Duch, was director of the notorious prison and feared interrogation center Tuol Sleng, or S-21, in the capital.
An estimated 16,000 men, women and children were systematically tortured, many beaten to death, at the prison. Cambodian officials believe only 14 people survived Tuol Sleng. In particular, Duch is alleged to have ordered the executions of 160 children in a single day.
It wasn't until the Vietnamese army invaded and defeated the Khmer Rouge military and government in 1979 that the true extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, founded and led by the infamous Pol Pot, became known.
The policy of Pot, or Brother Number One, was to forcibly empty the cities, sending millions of the country's educated and technical experts to vast collective farms in a bid to take society back to "Year Zero" and forge a Marxist utopia.
His vision excluded schools, currency and, importantly, religion, all of which were abolished by Brother Number One.
The resulting "Killing Fields" meant hundreds of thousands died from starvation and overwork, with thousands disappearing into jails around Kampuchea, the country's new name.
Pot died in 1998 but four other former top Khmer leaders are awaiting trial. Nuon Chea, known as Big Brother Number Two, the former head of state Khieu Samphan, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and Sary's wife, Leng Thirith, the minister of social affairs.
Duch, who is the only one to have shown remorse, will serve fewer than the 35 years. Judges at the court reduced his sentence by five years after ruling that he had been illegally detained by a military court following his arrest in 1999. Another 11 years were loped off the sentence because of time served in jail awaiting his trial, meaning he faces 19 years in prison.
The reduced sentence wasn't universally greeting with favor by the public in court and huddled around big TV screens set up in other parts of the building. Onlookers included members of groups that suffered greatly under Khmer Rouge repression, orange-robed Buddhist monks and Cham Muslims wearing white skull caps.
"Those who have taken many lives cannot avoid justice," said Chea Leang, one of the co-prosecutors.
Despite his stated remorse, Duch always contended that he was simply carrying out orders from his superiors and did so because he feared for his own life.
During his trial last November, Duch said he would be willing to submit to a public stoning but later asked instead to be acquitted and released.
The court in Phnom Penh has emptied only for the time being. It reconvenes later this year to start proceedings against the other former Khmer Rouge leaders.
Many Cambodians want more former Khmer Rouge cadres to stand trial but how long the court will continue after the next detainees are tried isn't known.
Despite the genocide of the Khmer Rouge ending 31 years ago, there lingers within Cambodian society a hint of "where were you during the regime." People wonder who was complicit, either voluntarily or by force.
Having a public court dig deeper than the next group of detainees could be disturbing for many people, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sen is one of the key leaders of the Cambodian People's Party that has governed Cambodia since the Vietnamese-backed overthrow in 1979. He was a Khmer Rouge cadre who escaped to Vietnam before 1979 in order to call for the Vietnamese to overthrow the Khmer government.