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Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of crimes against humanity

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture.

Killing Fields Memorial Stupa containing skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Killing Fields Memorial Stupa containing skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Image: Press Association Images

THREE AND A half decades after the genocidal rule of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge ended, a UN-backed war crimes tribunal has found two of the regime leaders guilty.

Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former president, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue, have been sentenced to life in prison for their role in the 1970s terror. Both men, in dire health, denied any wrongdoing.

They are the first of the regimes leaders to have been held accountable for the atrocities.

Mass killing 

The case, covering the forced exodus of millions of people from Cambodia’s towns and cities and a mass killing, is just part of the Cambodian story.

Nearly a quarter of the population died under their rule, through a combination starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution when the group held power in 1975-79.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were both been charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Both men are in frail health and have required occasional hospitalisation during the trial.

Khieu Samphan acknowledged that mass killings took place. But testifying before the court in 2011, he claimed he was just a figurehead who had no real authority. He denied ordering any executions himself, calling the allegations a “fairy tale.” Instead, he blamed Pol Pot, the group’s top leader, who died in 1998, for its extreme policies.

Cambodia Khmer Rouge Tribunal Nuon Chea, who was the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, is seen on a screen during his final statements at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Source: Heng Sinith

Khieu Samphan also said he believed when he was young, that communism — which Khmer Rouge cadres took to the extreme, virtually enslaving the entire population in a bid to create an agrarian utopia — had given him hope when he was young, and the movement had opposed a pro-Western regime and neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia’s traditional enemy.

Nuon Chea, who is known as Brother No. 2 for being Pol Pot’s trusted deputy, has appeared less repentant. At the start of the trial, in 2011, he blamed Vietnamese forces for killing Cambodians.

“I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals,” he said of those observing to the trial. “Nothing is true about that.”

Many criticised the slow justice and its cost. The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and comprising of Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has since spent more than $200 million, yet it has only convicted one defendant — prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.

Cambodia at the Oscars tourists walk through the ground dotted with mass graves of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at the Choeung Ek killing field in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The current trial began in November 2011 and started out with four Khmer Rouge leaders. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012.

Crimes against humanity

Cambodia at the Oscars Portraits of genocide victims at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the most notorious Khmer Rouge prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Age and poor health 

Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they die.

Both defendants face a second trial that is due to start by year’s end, this time on charges of genocide. That trial is expected to take years to complete.

Suon Mom, 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer era, said she was keen to see justice finally served, even if it is generations late.

“My anger remains in my heart,” she said. “I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink.”

Some say the money that financed the trial should have been spent on helping survivors instead, or on the impoverished country’s infrastructure.

Chea Chhunleng, a 23-year-old business student, said he was not opposed to harsh sentences for the two leaders, but said the trial could not change the past.

It “can only provide justice … only the word justice. That is all,” he said.

Read: Cambodia genocide defendant ruled unfit for trial>

Read: Pol Pot’s deputy tells court: Khmer Rouge ‘were not bad people’>

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