Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of genocide in landmark ruling
Two top leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime were found guilty of genocide on Friday (Nov 16), in a landmark ruling almost 40 years after the fall of a brutal regime that presided over the deaths of a quarter of the population.
The nearly four-year reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge left around two million Cambodians dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions. (File photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)
The Khmer Rouge's former head of state Khieu Samphan, 87, and "Brother Number 2" Nuon Chea, 92, are the two most senior living members of the ultra-Maoist group that seized control of Cambodia from 1975-1979.
The reign of terror led by "Brother Number 1" Pol Pot left some two million Cambodians dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions but Friday's ruling was the first to acknowledge a genocide.
The defendants were previously handed life sentences in 2014 over the violent and forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
But Friday's judgement at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) also found Nuon Chea guilty of genocide against the ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minority group, among a litany of other crimes.
"The chamber finds that Nuon Chea exercised ultimate decision-making power with Pol Pot and ... therefore finds Nuon Chea is responsible as a superior for all the crimes," presiding judge Nil Nonn said.
"This includes the crime of genocide by killing members of Cham ethnic and religious group."
Khieu Samphan was also found guilty of genocide against ethnic Vietnamese, though not against the Cham, he added.
Both parties were sentenced to "life in prison", merging the two sentences into a single term, Nil Nonn said.
Hundreds of people, including dozens of Cham Muslims and Buddhist monks, were bussed into the tribunal, located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to attend the hearing.
The events covered by the verdict span the four years of the Pol Pot regime, and include extensive crimes against humanity.
"The verdict is essentially the Nuremberg judgement for the ECCC and thus carries very significant weight for Cambodia, international criminal justice, and the annals of history," said David Scheffer, who served as the U.N. secretary general's special expert on the Khmer Rouge trials from 2012 until last month.
The revolutionaries who tried to recreate Buddhist-majority Cambodia in line with their vision of an agrarian Marxist utopia attempted to abolish class and religious distinctions by force.
Forced marriages, rape, the treatment of Buddhists, and atrocities that were carried out in prisons and work sites throughout the country fall under the additional list of charges - which the two men were found guilty of as well.
"(The verdict) will affirm the collective humanity of the victims and give recognition to the horrible suffering," said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia - a research organisation that has provided the court with evidence.
It could also "provide a sense of closure to a horrible chapter in Cambodian history".
Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife died without facing justice, while "Brother Number 1" Pol Pot passed away in 1998.
Spokesman of the trial chamber of the ECCC Neth Pheaktra told the press on Nov 16 that the verdicts in Case 002/02, which charged both men with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, were announced with the presence of representatives from the United Nations, the ambodian Government, foreign embassies, and local people.
“The pronouncement of the verdict on Friday is a historical event for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, for Cambodia and for the world, as well as for international justice”, he said.
The hearing for the case lasted 283 days, starting from October 2014, during which 185 inpiduals testified, he added.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which archives the Khmer Rouge atrocities, said the verdict "affirms the collective humanity of the victims and gives recognition to the horrible suffering that they suffered."
The ECCC is a special Cambodian court which receives international assistance through the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. It was set up in 2006 to bring to trial senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. In that period, at least 1.7 million Cambodian people are believed to have died from starvation, torture, execution and forced labour.
It has so far spent more than USD 318 million for its activities during 2006-2017, of which Japan contributed 29 percent. The chamber had to cease operation several times due to shortage of capital./.