via Khmer NZ
By Jonathan Gurwitz
Posted on Tue, Aug. 10, 2010
How much is a life worth? It's a question that crosses your mind when you hear about a jury deliberating a murderer's fate. Five years? Ten years? Life? A life for a life?
In cases involving one homicide, the human mind can at least comprehend the issue. A sensible debate can be had over the an appropriate punishment.
But when mass murder or genocide are involved, human faculties fail. The larger the scale of the atrocity, the less fathomable the crimes become. In a peculiar way, Stalin's observation is disturbingly accurate: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is merely a statistic.
Last month, a United Nations-backed tribunal in Cambodia rendered a verdict in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch. Duch was a cog in the wheel of Pol Pot's fanatical regime. Over a four-year period in the 1970s, his Khmer Rouge government presided over the murder of as many as two million of Cambodia's eight million residents in pursuit of a socialist agrarian paradise.
As commandant of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Duch was responsible for the deaths - frequently by torture - of more than 16,000 people. He is the first Khmer Rouge official ever to face accountability for the Cambodian genocide.
Duch acknowledged his guilt. At times during the proceedings, he even expressed remorse. Yes, he authorized the transports that took prisoners to the killing fields. Yes, he ordered torture to extract false confessions from those deemed enemies of the state. Yes, he observed the rapes, the pulling out of toenails, the electrical shocks. "I wanted to be a good communist," he once told a journalist.
But - there's always a but - he said he had no choice. If he hadn't done Pol Pot's genocidal bidding, he would have been executed himself. He was only following orders. He was a small part in a big machine. And, anyway, he's become a born-again Christian.
The tribunal found Duch guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. It could have sentenced him to life in prison. Prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence, which for Duch at age 67 would effectively have been a life sentence.
The tribunal, however, noted his cooperation - when he was finally apprehended after two decades in hiding - his sense of remorse, and his potential for rehabilitation. The judges sentenced him to 35 years, then shaved off 16 years for time already served and for a period of illegal detention.
If Duch serves out his full term, that amounts to a little more than 11 hours for each life he extinguished. Then as an old man in 19 years, he can go free.
One of the tribunal's international judges explained the sentence this way. "If left to the victims to decide how to punish a person," the Associated Press quoted jurist Silvia Cartwright of New Zealand, "then it would be, possibly, mob rule."
Actually, that's not accurate. Only about a dozen of the 16,000 men, women, and children who entered S-21 are believed to have survived. No mob of victims exists to exact retribution.
For the crimes for which Duch was convicted, there is no penance, there is no rehabilitation. A verdict that makes it possible for Duch to go free is an injustice to all of his victims, especially the silent mob whose voices the tribunal wasn't able to hear.