On August 2nd, a Guatamalan court convicted four former soldiers for the murder of 201 people during the Guatamalan civil war in the 1980s. The court sentenced the four to 12,060 years each, which represents 60 years per victim – 30 for murder and 30 for a crime against humanity.
Contrast that sentence with that of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the commander of the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Duch was found by the Cambodian Tribunal to be responsible for the torture and execution of more than 12,000 people over a period of several years. That court sentenced him to 35 years, giving him credit for 16 already served and acceptance of responsibility — for a total of 19 additional years to be served. Duch is 68. He could conceivably live to see freedom once again.
It is hard to reconcile the two sentences. The Duch sentence equates to one day of incarceration for every victim. By contrast, if the Duch Tribunal had issued a sentence of 60 years per victim similar to Guatamala, his sentence would have been 720,000 years.
To what do we attribute this radical disparity? International tribunal practice has been to issue a single sentence up to to life imprisonment regardless of the number of victims. This is true despite the fact the rules do not prohibit consecutive sentencing. Article 39(1) of the Cambodia Tribunal prescribes a sentencing range of five years to life imprisonment for each of the crimes the accused is charged with. Domestic jurisdictions frequently issue concurrent sentences tied to the number of victims. A California court sentenced Juan Corona to twenty five consecutive life sentences for murdering twenty five migrant farm workers. In New York, Shalom Weiss robbed hundreds of pensioners of their life savings and received a sentence of 2000 years.
Which brings me to my point: in cases with thousands of victims the sentence should be symbolically long and should be based in part on the number of victims to avoid the absurdity of a sentence like Duch’s. Sentencing should distinguish mass atrocity cases from domestic crimes. With Duch, he committed a crime for the ages but his 35 year sentence is that of a common murderer.
For the credibility of international tribunals it is important for prosecutors to rethink sentencing. Where appropriate, they should demand that tribunals issue consecutive sentences based in part on the number of victims involved.