Kaing Guek Eav, the former schoolteacher known as Duch who ran a notorious security prison under Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime, died on Wednesday at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in the country’s capital Phnom Penh. He was 77. According to a spokesman for the United Nations-backed tribunal that tried and convicted Duch of crimes against humanity, he was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday. The exact cause of death is unknown.
Duch died the sort of quiet death that he never allowed the thousands of Cambodians who passed through his hands at Tuol Sleng, a former Phnom Penh high school that served as the central security prison of Democratic Kampuchea, as the regime officially termed itself. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge’s uncompromising attempt to forge a pure agrarian utopia caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, around a quarter of the country’s population at the time.
As commandant of Tuol Sleng—code named “S-21”—Duch presided over the death of at least 14,000 Cambodians who were interrogated, forced to sign mostly false confessions, and, in all but a handful of cases, executed. “S-21 was the end of the line,” Duch later told the filmmaker and Khmer Rouge survivor Rithy Panh. “People who got sent there were already corpses.”
Following his arrest by the Cambodian government in 1999, Duch was the first defendant to be tried and convicted by a joint UN-Cambodian tribunal known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Unfolding over eight months in 2009 and 2010, Duch’s trial laid bare the Eichmann-like role he played at the center of the Khmer Rouge’s intricate machinery of death. Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches the regime’s crimes, told The Diplomat that Duch played a pivotal role in Democratic Kampuchea, a regime “which measured its success based on the number of both external and internal enemies that were eliminated.”
It was a task in which the former schoolteacher displayed an unbending discipline and a fanatical attention to detail. Under Duch’s supervision, interrogators were instructed to “smash” suspected traitors and counter-revolutionaries, a designation which eventually consumed countless cadres of the Khmer Rouge revolution itself.
In July 2010, the ECCC found Duch guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes as well as homicide and torture, and sentenced him to a 35 years’ prison sentence. In early 2012, a Supreme Court Chamber upheld the conviction, upping his sentence to life in prison. It was a landmark event: the first time that a Khmer Rouge leader had been convicted and imprisoned, beyond any chance of appeal, for his or her actions under the regime.
Duch’s conviction showed that given the necessary international will, there is possibility of accountability for the most heinous crimes. It also demonstrated some of the limits of international justice. Due to the vagaries of international and domestic politics, justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge was delayed until nearly three decades after the regime was toppled from power — by which point its primary leaders were either dead or of an advanced age. Its jurisdiction was also confined to the narrow period from 1975 to 1979, and limited to senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those “most responsible” for its crimes.
The journey toward justice has been similarly delayed by the sheer complexity of proving charges like genocide and war crimes beyond reasonable doubt. Since beginning operations in 2006, the ECCC has convicted just three former Khmer Rouge leaders—the others were the late Nuon Chea, the regime’s austere second-in-command, and Khieu Samphan, its former head of state—and has faced challenges due to the age and fragile health of the accused.
Ieng Sary, the regime’s former foreign minister, evaded justice by dying in 2013, a year after his wife and comrade-in-arms Ieng Thirith, often referred to as the “first lady” of the Khmer Rouge, was ruled unfit to stand trial due to progressive dementia. (The regime’s shadowy leader, “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, died in penury, a prisoner of his own collapsing movement, in 1998.) Meanwhile, the ECCC remains deadlocked over two future cases involving lower-level leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former commander in the Khmer Rouge army, has opposed further trials while international judges and prosecutors assert that there is enough evidence to proceed.
The political and legal complications that have bedeviled the ECCC may well be inseparable from the pursuit of justice at the international level. But as Cambodia’s last remaining genocidaires fade one by one from the scene, the ECCC has produced at least one indelible legacy: a rich archive of testimony that will be a valuable bequest to the next generation of Cambodian historians. From these pages the voices of the victims of the Khmer Rouge speak as loudly and insistently as ever.