Former Khmer Rouge regime leader and torturer Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, made front page news today when his trial ended with a plea for acquittal. Prosecution lawyers are striving for a 40-year sentence for the man who was responsible for the torture and killing of some 15,000 people in the S-21 prison in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Duch, now 67, has admittedly had some distance from the situation. About 30 years of distance, in fact. My question is, do you prosecute someone who committed a crime in virtually another lifetime or let him enjoy the last years of his life with the dignity of an elderly man?
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Take dear Roman Polanski and his underage lover from the late 70’s. Or French President Jacques Chirac’s embezzlement charges dating back to the 1990’s. And who can forget Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity from the early 90’s?
I could fill this page with names of people who are only now facing up to poisonous acts executed decades ago. And there’s an additional, and equally long, list for those we’d like to indict (re: George Bush). But is it fair to send these usually aging and possibly reformed former leaders into the bleakness of prison for what will be, most likely, the remainder of their lives?
For me, it’s partly a question of age. Just as I cannot imagine sending a 12 year-old boy to jail for the rest of his life for shooting off a gun at his neighbor, I have trouble envisioning a grandpa-type withering away his last days in a tiny, steel cell.
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Additionally, there is the question of torture, since most of these soon-to-be inmates will face it at some point in their jailed lives, even as hunching old fogeys. Do we say, “you got what you deserved” and leave it at that?
There is something to be said about mental space. Space, in the form of years, in which the brain can reformulate patterns of thinking. Reform. I will be the first to criticize the Born Again Christianity movement, but I have been privy to cases where a person or family unit was ultimately transformed by their renewed belief in Jesus. In effect, Duch of Cambodia has tried to get off scot free using his Born Again status as proof that he’s a changed man. Are we buying it? And if we do, should we?
I’m not saying that we should just let all the bad guys go. Obviously, if no one learns that genocide or rape or torture is inherently wrong, we have no chance of eradicating it in future generations. I just think that when we’re dealing with a combination of old age and years passed since a crime’s occurrence, a little perspective is due. And possibly, maybe, a little humanity as well.