Khmer Rouge chief jailer sentenced to 19 years

A former Khmer Rouge chief jailer was sentenced to 19 years behind bars today after a United Nations-backed tribunal found him guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, listened impassively as the chief judge read out the verdict in Phnom Penh.

It was the first verdict to be handed down against a senior member of the genocidal regime blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people during its 1975-79 reign of terror.

The court sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison, but subtracted the 11 years he had already spent in detention and five more for co-operating with the court.

Judge Nil Nonn noted that Duch admitted to heading Tuol Sleng, a top-secret detention centre for the worst "enemies" of the state, where more than 16,000 people were killed, many after being tortured.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the Maoist regime that sought to turn the country into an agrarian utopia.

Their bodies were dumped in shallow mass graves that still dot the countryside.

The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and four other top members of the Khmer Rouge are awaiting trial.

Unlike the other defendants, Duch - pronounced Doik - was not among the ruling clique and is the only major figure of the regime to have expressed remorse, even offering at one point to face a public stoning.

The former maths teacher joined Pol Pot's movement in 1967. Ten years later he was the trusted head of its ultimate killing machine, S-21, which became the code name for Tuol Sleng.

Only 14 prisoners are thought to have survived ordeals at the prison that included medieval-like tortures to extract "confessions" from supposed enemies of the regime, followed by executions and burials in mass graves outside Phnom Penh.

The gruesome litany of torture included pulling out prisoners' toenails, administering electric shocks, waterboarding - a form of simulated drowning - and medical experiments that ended in death.

Duch's surprise request on the final day to be acquitted and freed, after weeks of saying he was sorry, left many wondering if his contrition was sincere. Some feared he would get off lightly.

Prosecutors had asked that he face 40 years in prison.

Hundreds of villagers - many who lost family members during the Khmer Rouge - attended the hearing.