The chief torturer behind Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge died Wednesday while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity, leaving just one surviving leader of the regime that killed an estimated two million people in the 1970s.
Kaing Guek Eav, 77, better known by his alias Duch, served as the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in the late 1970s and was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2012 by a UN-backed tribunal for his role in the "Killing Fields" regime.
His death leaves Khieu Samphan, the head of state and de facto public face of the regime, as the sole surviving Khmer Rouge member convicted by the tribunal.
"The souls of the victims and my parents have received justice," Norng Chan Phal, who survived internment at Tuol Sleng as a child, told AFP outside what is now a memorial centre.
Duch had been in and out of hospital for years and was admitted again this week, tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra told AFP.
According to a doctor's letter confirming his death shown to AFP, Duch had symptoms of "acute respiratory distress".
Journalists saw his body taken to a local temple where it was cremated early Wednesday afternoon.
The first member of the Khmer Rouge to stand trial, Duch's testimony served as an important milestone for millions of Cambodians who suffered under the brutal regime.
Some two million people were believed to have died during the four-year rule due to starvation, forced labour and mass executions in detention centres across the country.
At Tuol Sleng Duch had maintained a huge archive of photos, confessions and other documents which UN prosecutors used to trace the final desperate months of thousands of inmates.
It revealed facets of the regime's secretive workings -- such as the repeated purges driven by paranoia from the leadership that its enemies were within its ranks.
- Milestone of justice -
Born in 1942, Duch, a former mathematics teacher, became the Khmer Rouge's top interrogator when the ultra-Maoist regime was in power from 1975-1979.
He oversaw the torture of thousands of men, women and children in a neighbourhood high school that was converted into a detention centre, extracting false confessions from his victims and sending them to their deaths on the outskirts of the capital.
He told the UN-backed court that he joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 "in order to transform society, to oppose the government, to oppose torture", and helped to oversee a series of jungle prisons.
After the regime seized power in 1975, he was installed as head of Tuol Sleng -- referred to as S-21 by the Khmer Rouge -- which he staffed with uneducated teenage boys.
He said they could be easily indoctrinated because they were "like a blank piece of paper".
He maintained posts within the communist movement even as it battled Vietnam-backed troops after it fell from power in January 1979.
He turned to Christianity in his later years and was working for an aid agency under a false name at the time of his arrest in 1999, when many had long assumed he was already dead.
While he had begged for forgiveness for his crimes, he later dismayed survivors by asking to be acquitted on the grounds that he was not a senior member of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.
"I respectfully and strictly followed the orders," Duch said in one of his final public statements to the court.
His death was "a reminder that justice is a long and difficult" process, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which conducts research on the Khmer Rouge regime.
"Perhaps it can bring some satisfaction to the living, and the fallen can now rest in peace," Youk told AFP.
The tribunal is still running today, with long-stalled cases against Khmer Rouge naval commander Meas Muth and alleged high-ranking member Yim Tith in process.
Apart from Duch and Khieu Samphan, the only other top-ranking cadre to be jailed was "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who died last year aged of 93.