PHNOM PENH • The Khmer Rouge commander Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch - Pol Pot's main executioner and security chief who oversaw the murder of at least 14,000 Cambodians at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison - died yesterday. He was 77.
Duch was the first member of the Khmer Rouge leadership to face trial for his role in a regime blamed for at least 1.7 million deaths in the "killing fields" of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
He died at 12.52am at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, said Mr Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for a tribunal set up to prosecute top Khmer Rouge leaders. He gave no details of the cause of death, but Duch had been ill in recent years.
In 2010, the United Nations-backed tribunal found him guilty of mass murder, torture and crimes against humanity at Tuol Sleng prison, a former Phnom Penh high school that still stands as a memorial to the atrocities committed inside.
He was given a life sentence two years later after his appeal, on the grounds that he was just a junior official following orders, was rejected.
Duch - by the time of his trial a born-again Christian - expressed regret for his crimes.
United States ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy, in a comment on Twitter, called his conviction "a milestone in ensuring accountability".
Duch was one of only a handful of top Khmer Rouge figures convicted before they died. Paramount leader Pol Pot died in a Khmer Rouge jungle hideout in 1998.
Under Duch's leadership, detainees at Tuol Sleng prison, codenamed "S-21", were ordered to suppress cries of agony as Khmer Rouge guards, many of whom were teenagers, sought to extract confessions for non-existent crimes through torture.
The guards were instructed to "smash to bits" traitors and counter-revolutionaries.
"Nothing in the former schoolhouse took place without Duch's approval. His control was total," wrote photographer and author Nic Dunlop, who found Duch in 1999 hiding near the Thai border, two decades after the Khmer Rouge fell.
"Not until you walk through the empty corridors of Tuol Sleng does Stalin's idiom that one death is a tragedy - a million a statistic, take on a terrifying potency," Mr Dunlop wrote in his account of Duch and his atrocities, The Lost Executioner.