Landmark Verdict Finds Two of Khmer Rouge’s Surviving Leaders Guilty of Genocide

It is the first time that such a verdict has been meted out against high-ranking members of the brutal Cambodian regime

tribunal verdict
A man cleans a skull near a mass grave at the Chaung Ek torture camp run by the Khmer Rouge in this undated photo. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In a landmark verdict, two leading figures of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime have been found guilty of genocide.

Ninety-two-year-old Nuon Chea, once chief political strategist for Khmer Rough leader Pol Pot, and 87-year-old Khieu Samphan, who was the regime’s head of state, were convicted by a U.N.-backed international tribunal, according to the BBC. Chea and Samphan were already serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity, which had been meted out during a separate trial, and they were given another life sentence during the recent proceedings.

Chea and Samphan are the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, as the Associated Press reports, and this marks the first time that a high-ranking member of the group has been convicted of genocide. Samphan was found guilty of genocide against the ethnic Vietnamese community. Chea was convicted of genocide against both Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Cham population, a Muslim ethnic minority.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, after overtaking the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Fueled by Marxist ideology, the group sought to establish an agrarian utopia—but its attempted implementation of these ideals was brutal. City dwelling Cambodians were forced to work on farms in the countryside, and hundreds of thousands of the educated middle class were tortured and killed. For something as simple as wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language, a person could be put to death.

During the nearly four years of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, nearly 2 million Cambodians are thought to have died from execution, starvation and disease. The Cham Muslims and the ethnic Vietnamese suffered terribly under this reign of terror. According to the BBC, most of the Vietnamese in Cambodia were deported, and the 20,000 who stayed behind were killed. It has been estimated that 36 percent of Cambodia’s 300,000 Cham Muslims died under the Khmer Rouge.

There has been some debate over whether the regime’s treatment of these groups met the U.N.’s definition of genocide, described as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” The recent ruling by the tribunal, which has spent more than 10 years reviewing documents and hearing from witnesses, is a decisive verdict.

According to Hannah Beech of the New York Times, the ruling consistently referenced “murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political grounds and other inhumane acts against human dignity.”

Made up of Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors, the tribunal has faced criticism for moving at a slow pace. Just one other high-ranking Khmer Rouge member—Kaing Guek Eav, once the commander of the notorious S-21 prison—has been convicted of crimes against humanity. Two other leaders were arrested and put on trial, but died during the deliberations, Beech reports.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member who defected while the group was still in power, has previously spoken out against the trials, claiming that they threaten to plunge the country into civil war. In 1998, he opined that Chea and Samphan should be welcomed “with bouquets of flowers, not with prisons and handcuffs.” Opposition from the prime minister, whose own political regime has been characterized as "abusive and authoritatiran" by Human Rights Watch, makes it unlikely that the tribunal will launch new trials in the future.

The convictions of Chea and Samphan brought long-awaited justice to survivors such as Sum Rithy, a 65-year-old who said he was jailed for two years under the Khmer Rouge. He told the AP that he was “very happy that the both Khmer Rouge leaders were sentenced to life in prison.”

“The verdict was fair enough for me and other Cambodian victims," he added.

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