When Brutal Killers Die, What Becomes of Their Remains?

Over the last century, many countries have faced a predicament as they topple brutal regimes or emerged from devastating conflicts.

How should the perpetrators be buried?

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A sign reading ‘Please take care’ is posted above Pol Pot’s grave, in a photograph taken in 2007. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some leaders who oversaw systematic torture or the extermination of millions have been tried and executed; others died of natural causes. In either case, how societies treat those leaders’ bodies speaks volumes about their ongoing politics.

The issue is far from simple, writes Sevane Garibian in her introduction to “La mort du bourreau” (The Perpetrator’s Death). The 295-page book, released in November by Editions Petra publishing in Paris, consists of chapters written by attorneys and researchers on some of the world’s most notorious political leaders—including Cambodia’s Pol Pot—whose policies included systematic killings and genocide.

The remains of such leaders are inevitably caught up in the politics of the moment, writes Ms. Garibian, a Geneva-based attorney specializing in international criminal justice and human rights, and the book’s editor.

Regardless of the way they died, she says, “the end of perpetrators as well as the fate reserved for their remains, neither trite nor uncertain, are most often violent.”

“Those bodies, which speak for a long time after their death…are in turn treated as nameless or heroic, abandoned or made [national] heritage, the object of tribute or mystifying disappearance, honors or profanation.”

When Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, historian Nicolas Patin writes in the book, several Nazi leaders and supporters were publicly executed in the countries they had invaded and where they had slaughtered political opponents and Jewish people—as many as 11 million across Europe.

But the highest-ranking Nazi leaders condemned to death at the international Nuremberg Trials were hanged at night behind closed doors in 1946, causing many to doubt whether they had really been executed, Mr. Patin writes.

Facing public controversy, authorities resorted to releasing gruesome photos of the bodies of those leaders to the press, he says.

In 2006, former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet died aged 91 in his country’s capital of Santiago, having managed to avoid trial for the torture and killing of numerous political opponents while he was in power in the 1970s, write attorney Rosa Ana Alija Fernandez in the book.

Many rejoiced that the old dictator was dead, while his former supporters in the army and among the wealthy mourned. The government, which had tried to take him to court, took a subdued path, refusing to allow a state funeral or for his tomb to become a place of pilgrimage. The dictator was buried at a discreet, private site.

By contrast, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, was honored as a head of state in Belgrade when his body was repatriated in 2006, despite the leader being on trial at The Hague at the time of his death. He died in his cell—suspected of having played a role in his own death—while being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s, writes journalist Florence Hartmann.

The aftermath of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s death, meanwhile, elicited less fanfare, as evidenced by his burial site, anthropologist Anne Yvonne Guillou writes. “The extreme modesty and the lack of site maintenance clearly reflect of whom they preserve the memory: that of a defeated.”

And twice defeated at that. First by the Vietnamese army who, along with a Cambodian contingent, ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979 and sent Pol Pot and his forces fleeing to the Cambodian-Thai border where they set up camp. And then by his fellow cadres. He was tried by a Khmer Rouge “revolutionary tribunal” in 1997 and died in unclear circumstances in April 1998.

His body was later incinerated without the usual Cambodian rites, Ms. Guillou writes. His ashes are kept at an inconspicuous location in Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

For government officials, Pol Pot in his final resting place is a potential tourist draw, while for local villagers he is now in the realm of ancestral beliefs, she says.

“The Tourism Ministry has recruited a small number of former Khmer Rouge combatants as guides,” she writes, while “local interpretation…is that Pol Pot has been transformed into an immaterial being.”

Ms. Garibian, at the end of her introduction, writes of how the deaths of genocidal leaders such as Pol Pot can change the societies in which they committed their crimes.

Ultimately, “it feeds their legends,” she writes. “Even ‘departed,’ their remains live on in a political, legal, immaterial form.”

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