Since the announcement of Duch’s verdict, I’ve observed myriad responses to the relatively light sentence.
Many people – perhaps even the majority – seem shocked and outraged at the 35-year sentence (yet only 19 to be served) .
However, these people seem to have forgotten two very important factors in the tribunal.
First, the prosecution essentially received their requested sentence. The sentence was hardly a surprise. The prosecution requested 40 years. The judges took into account the many mitigating factors – factors never before present in a tribunal of this type. Considering this, the 35-year sentence seems, perhaps, the best the prosecution could hope for.
Of course, the fact that Kaing Guek Eav will actually spend significantly less time in prison has shocked many people unfamiliar with several seemingly insignificant aspects of International and Khmer law.
However, unlike the general public, the prosecution must have known of the possibility of the lowering of their requested sentence to something akin to 19 years. They knew what to expect and still chose to ask for 40 years.
If people consider the sentence too light, they should have become angry months ago when the prosecution first stated their requested sentence.
Another interesting factor is that, according to Judge Jean-Marc Lavergne, the judges actually made a decision to “resolve” their “doubt” regarding the legality of a sentence of more than 30 years, against Duch – despite the “widely accepted principle that doubt must be resolved in favour of the accused”. (The judge’s statements were recently released on the ECCC website.)
In other words, the judges actually decided in favor of the prosecution despite the dissention of one of their own who sincerely believed the decision to be unlawful.
Secondly, many people seem to have forgotten that Duch has already lived past the average Khmer life expectancy.
Thus, although there is the possibility that he will go free after 19 years, it is far more likely that he will live out the rest of his life in prison (a life sentence in all but name).
Despite this, even the terminology used matters to the victims. While the difference between 19 years and life might not, in the end, make much of a difference to Duch, it makes a world of difference to his victims.
In the end, of course, the legalities and intricacies of the verdict really matter little to most people affected by the Khmer Rouge Regime.
What matters is simply the fact that a man who presided over the deaths of more than 14,000 people will serve a mere sentence of 19 years – when people who murder only once often receive life sentences (or even the death sentence in some other countries).
To most – including me – this seems simply incomprehensible, despite all the legal details and more practical aspects (such as the fact that 19 years will probably mean life for Duch).
Has justice been done? I don’t know the answer. But I hope that this will be a step forward for Cambodia in the process of reconciliation. I also hope that Cambodia will continue moving forward as the proceedings for Case 002 finally begin.
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