Cambodia genocide: Khmer Rouge prison chief Comrade Duch dies

Comrade Duch claimed he was only following orders ©2020 Getty Images

Comrade Duch, a former senior figure of the Khmer Rouge convicted of crimes against humanity in Cambodia, has died.

He was serving a life term after being sentenced by a UN-backed court.

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where thousands of people were tortured and murdered in the late 1970s.

As many as two million people are believed to have died under the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

In 2010, Duch became the first senior Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted by the UN-backed tribunal after a journalist found him in hiding a decade earlier. He was sentenced in 2012.

He died on Wednesday, aged 77, a spokesman for the tribunal in the capital Phnom Penh said, without giving details of the cause. He had been ill for many years.

"Duch died this morning at 00:52am, on 2 September at Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital. Details of what he died of, I can't tell," the spokesman said.

​Duch's testimony at the tribunal was a landmark moment for Cambodians who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge's brutal reign, and future generations.

While prison chief at Tuol Sleng, Duch maintained a huge archive of photos and documents, including thousands of prisoner "confessions", that revealed many aspects of the Khmer Rouge's inner workings. They also helped prosecutors trace the final months of thousands of inmates' lives.

In Phnom Penh, there were mixed feelings about his death.

"If he stayed alive then we may still hear more of the history from him for the younger generation and people," one man told Reuters news agency.

Another resident said that she would never forget his crimes. "He deserves to serve more prison terms. But now he has died, I can forgive him and his case is finished."

What happened at Tuol Sleng prison?

Comrade Duch ran Phnom Penh's S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, the most notorious Khmer Rouge torture site.

It is thought that at least 15,000 men, women and children deemed enemies of the regime passed through the gates of the former school-turned-prison.

Most of them were tortured, forced to confess to fictitious crimes against the Khmer Rouge and then put to death at the so-called "killing fields" just outside the capital.

Tuol Sleng was turned from a school to a prison, torture site and death camp ©2020 Getty Images

Prisoners were initially officials from the old government, people accused of being middle class and later mainly Khmer Rouge members suspected of disloyalty.

The guards, who were often teenagers, forced the prisoners to write detailed confessions to whatever they were accused of and implicate friends and family who were then imprisoned in turn.

Those who survived the torture where eventually taken to the "killing fields" at Choeung Ek where they were killed, sometimes after digging their own mass graves.

Fewer than a dozen prisoners survived Tuol Sleng.

Cambodia's 'Killing Fields'

"Nothing in the former schoolhouse took place without Duch's approval. His control was total," wrote photojournalist Nic Dunlop, who found him in 1999 hiding near the Thai border.

During his trial, Duch admitted he had been in charge of Tuol Sleng and apologised for his part in the horrors committed there.

He later claimed he had only been following orders, but his appeal on those grounds was rejected by the tribunal.

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

The brutal Khmer Rouge, in power from 1975-1979, claimed the lives of around two million people.

The regime led by Pol Pot tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, or "Year Zero", forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.