The first senior leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue to ever be punished have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, 35 years after their regime’s bloody rule ended.
A United Nations-backed court today found Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its chief ideologue, guilty for their part in the crimes of a regime responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people by execution, starvation, overwork and disease from 1975 to 1979.
Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, can appeal the ruling, though they will remain in detention “given the gravity of the crimes for which they were convicted,” said Nil Nonn, president of the tribunal’s trial chamber. Both men are in poor health, and Nuon Chea was seated in a wheelchair and unable to stand when the ruling was read in the courtroom in Phnom Penh.
The guilty verdicts are the first against senior leaders of Pol Pot’s regime who devised and implemented the policies that emptied Cambodia’s cities and turned its countryside into “killing fields.” Survivors of the regime have long pushed for someone to be held accountable for the genocidal rule that shaped the country’s modern history and have complained about the pace of the court proceedings.
“Nearly 40 years after some of the 20th century’s most appalling crimes were committed, the victims have seen the perpetrators brought to account before a court of law,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has monitored the tribunal. “They have been tried fairly, and found guilty.”
Reading a summary of the judgment prior to sentencing, Nil Nonn explained how the two were guilty of planning, ordering, implementing and aiding and abetting the crimes of murder, extermination, political persecution and other inhumane acts during their rule. The charge of crimes against humanity was related to the forced transfer of millions of people from cities and towns as well as the killing of officials from the defeated Khmer Republic.
Pol Pot’s peasant army took power in April 1975 after a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War stirred discontent in the countryside against General Lon Nol’s coup-installed government. Within hours of taking control of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began the forced evacuation of the population of as many as 2.5 million people, including those dying and wounded in hospitals.
“In the hours after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the population celebrated thinking peace would return to Cambodia,” Nil Nonn said. “But in the hours following, the Khmer Rouge told the population to leave immediately.”
“Those who did not obey immediately were shot on the spot,” he said.
Nil Nonn said there was no credible evidence to support the defendants’ claims that Phnom Penh was evacuated due to fears that the U.S. would bomb the city following the Khmer Rouge victory. He said the transfers were carried out for ideological reasons to better control the population and to root out “enemies” of the new regime.
Both Nuon Chea, wearing a black jacket, dark sunglasses, and blue shirt, and Khieu Samphan, wearing a white jacket and light blue shirt, listened to the ruling on headphones since it was delivered in English. Neither of the men, who maintained their innocence throughout the trial, reacted to the verdict before they were taken back to their detention cells.
Defense attorneys for both men said they would appeal. Khieu Samphan’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, called the verdict “unjust” and the life sentence “not proportionate.”
The tribunal came too late for Pol Pot, who died in a jungle hideout in 1998. Set up in 2006, the court has prosecuted just one person, Kaing Guek Eav, a lower-ranking Khmer Rouge commander who was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison. The court has been beset by budgetary shortfalls and claims of mismanagement and political interference. It’s also faced criticism that it has prosecuted too few suspects and spent too much money, more than $200 million since beginning operations.
Two other senior leaders of the regime, which collapsed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded, were also scheduled to face trial. Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, died in 2013, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial in 2011 due to dementia.
“There can be no such thing as perfect justice for crimes so heinous and on such a scale as the ones committed here,” said Craig Etcheson, who spent six years investigating Khmer Rouge crimes in the co-prosecutors’ office at the tribunal. “They say that justice delayed is justice denied, and to a certain extent there may be some truth in that. But, at the same time, this may be some justice. And, some justice is better than no justice.”