Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of crimes against humanity and jailed for life | Cruise Mekong River

Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of crimes against humanity and jailed for life

The former Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, in the courtroom in Phnom Penh.
The former Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, in the courtroom in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Mark Pepper/AFP/Getty

The former Khmer Rouge senior figures Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have been found guilty of crimes against humanity and given life imprisonment by a court in Cambodia.

Khieu Samphan, the 83-year-old who was the regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, its chief ideologue, now aged 88, still face a genocide trial for their role in the 1970s terror. Both men, in ill health, have denied wrongdoing.

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 the Khmer Rouge through a combination starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution when the group held power in 1975-79.

Many have criticised the slow justice and the 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 US$ 200m yet it has only convicted one defendant, prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.

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. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were both 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 has 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’s extreme policies.

A photograph Nuon Chea on display in Tuol Sleng prison, believed to have held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation under the Khmer Rouge – mostly intellectuals, officials or those deemed traitors.
A photograph Nuon Chea on display in Tuol Sleng prison, believed to have held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation under the Khmer Rouge – mostly intellectuals, officials or those deemed traitors. Photograph: Omar Havana/Getty Images

He also said that the communism 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 neighbouring 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.”

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 due to start by year’s end, this time on charges of genocide. That trial is expected to take years more to complete.

A stupa commemorating Cambodia's Choeung Ek Killing Fields filled with thousands of skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
A stupa commemorating Cambodia’s Choeung Ek killing fields filled with thousands of skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Photograph: Omar Havana/Getty Images

Suon Mom, 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer era, said: “My anger remains in my heart. I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink … Hopefully the court will sentence the two leaders to life in prison.”

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 the trial could not change the past.

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

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Cambodia | The Guardian
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