Khmer Rouge Jailer's Sentence Increased To Life
The defendant Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the commander of the top secret Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. He admitted to overseeing the torture of his prisoners and was convicted last year to a 35-year sentence (which had 11 years shaved off due to time already served and other technicalities). He appealed for a lesser sentence based on the premise that he was simply a subordinate officer following orders of high-level Khmer Rouge officials.
The Khmer Rouge lasted from 1975 until 1979, promoting torture, starvation and execution. This period saw the deaths of approximately two million Cambodians—over a quarter of the total population.
The following-orders defense is neither a unique nor a new concept. Most notably Adolph Eichmann used it as a defense during the Nuremberg trials. Eichmann was a Nazi Lieutenant Colonel who managed and facilitated the mass deportation of the Jewish population. In his defense her once stated: “I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors."
These systematic methods of mass murder, whether the Cambodian genocide or the Holocaust, evolve in many layers, from the top executives all the way down to the ones who actually pull the trigger. It isn't a one or two-man job. It is a job for thousands, even tens of thousands of individuals. No one believes that Hitler or Pol Pot actually killed millions of people by themselves. Their fingers cannot possibly move that fast. No, they have accomplices. They have subordinates upon subordinates following their orders.
The troubling question is this: where do we draw the line as to whom deserves punishment?
Prominent leaders undoubtedly deserve punishment – Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Tito. They were the instigators of the worst crimes to humanity. Yet when it comes to their subordinates, who can and should be held responsible for the continuation and enforcement of the killings? Should only the top officials, such as Duch or Eichmann, be persecuted? How about the ones who follow Duch's or Eichmann's orders? Or the soldiers who take their knives and slit throats, the guards who actually direct people to gas chambers? Is there a single level in the hierarchy to where we can place blame?
In “Enemies of the People,” a documentary on the Cambodian genocide, the journalist Thet Sambath talks to Brother Khoun, who carried out killings during the Khmer Rouge. Sambath asks him to demonstrate exactly how he killed his victims, and Khoun complies by reenacting his method of killing. He leans over and pulls back someone's head, and slits their throats from behind. Khoun reveals that because he had to slit so many throats, his wrist would sometimes hurt, so instead of slitting across, he would stab and hack at their throats.
Brother Khoun is one of tens of thousands who implemented Pol Pot's policy of eliminating enemies of Cambodia. Duch, like Khoun, is also one of tens of thousands who implemented Pol Pot's policy of eliminating enemies of Cambodia. However, Brother Khoun now lives as a peasant farmer in northwestern Cambodia, whereas Duch is serving a lifetime imprisonment sentence.
There are hordes of people like Brother Khoun who have escaped punishment because they were not the top instigators of the atrocities – they were merely following orders. International tribunals place little or no blame on people like Brother Khoun who were lower on the hierarchy and hence merely “following orders,” but should this be the case?
What do your moral values tell you?