The decision of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to sentence Duch, the brutal Chairman of S-21 and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, to a mere nineteen years in prison exemplifies the disturbing tendency of international criminal tribunals to issue sentences of pedestrian severity to the world’s very worst criminals. This article examines the sociopolitical roots of this phenomenon. Drawing on insights from the political science literature to engage in a comparative analysis of the relationship between democracy and punishment, the article concludes that international criminal tribunals’ lenience likely stems, at least in part, from excessive insulation from, and insensitivity to, democratic pressures. The experiences of the United States—where democratic participation in the machinery of punishment and excessively punitive sentencing have gone hand in hand—counsel against allowing popular sentiment to directly dictate the terms of punishment. Yet international jurists could arrive at a more just sentencing framework by incorporating popular preferences and values into their decision-making processes.
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