The supreme tribunal of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia [ECCC] on Friday ordered the Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer to serve out the rest of his life in prison for "shocking and heinous" crimes against the Cambodian people.
The surprise ruling increased a lower ECCC court's 19-year sentence after prosecutors appealed it as being too lenient.
The 69-year old Kaing Guek Eav, called "Duch," was commander of the top secret Tuol Sleng prison — code-named S-21. Duch admitted to overseeing the torture of his prisoners before sending them for execution in the "killing fields."
In July 2010, the ECCC lower court convicted Duch of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and the murder of at least 12,272 victims, but some estimates place the number as high as 16,000.
He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but his sentence was reduced for time served, among other technicalities. The sentence reduction outraged survivors who feared that the man who brutally tortured and murdered thousands could one day walk free among them.
Duch defended himself saying he was "merely following orders."
During Friday's ruling, which is final and cannot be appealed, the presiding judge said Duch’s sentence should be more severe because he was responsible for so many brutal deaths.
The tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died from torture, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care during the Khmer Rouge's 1970s rule.
The Khmer Rouge, or Communist Party of Kampuchea, was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan, the organization is remembered primarily for its policy of social engineering, which resulted in genocide.
Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases (such as malaria).
Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, were conducted in a systemic and brutal fashion.
The number of deaths under the Khmer Rouge remains hotly debated and mass graves continue to be unearthed in Cambodia. Modern estimates place the death toll between 1.4 and 2.2 million.
In 1979 the Khmer Rouge formed a government in exile, retaining its seat at the United Nations until the Cambodian monarchy was reconstituted in 1993.
The following year thousands of Khmer Rouge guerillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty.
However, in 1997 a series of lengthy negotiations between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the United Nations led to the formation of the ECCC, which was tasked with investigating and trying four senior members of the Khmer Rouge, including Sary.
Three more senior Khmer Rouge figures are currently on trial in what is known as Case 002. Unlike Duch, who admitted his crimes, asked for forgiveness, and bowed to the judge on hearing his final verdict Friday, the others claim no wrongdoing.
They are Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and second-in-command; Khieu Samphan, 80, an ex-head of state; and Ieng Sary, 86, the former foreign minister.
They are accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, murder and torture.