Two senior former Khmer Rouge officials were found guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity on Friday after a closely watched four-year trial.
Nuon Chea, 92, deputy to deceased Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, was found guilty of genocide against Vietnamese and the Cham, a Muslim minority group. Khieu Samphan, 87, the regime’s head of state, was found guilty of genocide against Vietnamese but not the Cham.
They were also found guilty of several other crimes, including forced marriage and rape, internal purges, and breaches of the Geneva Convention by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a UN-backed court established to prosecute alleged perpetrators of crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge era.
An estimated 1.7 million to as many as 3 million Cambodians perished during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule between 1975 and 1979.
Next January marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of the regime, which was ousted by defectors supported by the Vietnamese military. Cambodia was controlled by a Vietnamese-backed government in which current Prime Minister Hun Sen served throughout the 1980s.
Even after their ouster the Khmer Rouge continued to exist, mostly in areas near the Thai border where it fought a guerrilla war until the mid-1990s. It was often supported by China and the United States, which for different reasons opposed Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
In August 2014, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975, crimes considered under Case 002/01. The more recent case of genocide and forced marriages, known as Case 002/02, began thereafter; 185 witnesses and experts gave testimony in the trial.
The pair’s previous sentences of life in prison were merged into a single sentence of life imprisonment on Friday.
The decision is expected to be the last major case heard by the Khmer Rouge tribunal, as it is commonly called. While some international tribunal investigators hope to bring other alleged perpetrators to trial, political and financial issues will likely prevent this.
Since it began in October 2014, more than 80,000 members of the public attended trial hearings for case 002/02, while hundreds were invited to watch today’s verdicts either in the public gallery or outside the court where the proceedings were broadcast on television. Hearings for the trial concluded in January 2017.
Many spectators, including young monks and elderly survivors, arrived early in the morning today at the court, located almost an hour from the center of the national capital Phnom Penh.
“I want to see justice,” said one spectator, an elderly man from the Cham community, before the verdict was given.
Speaking after the verdict, Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin called it “a historic day for all of humanity”, adding that after decades Cambodia has not wavered in its pursuit of justice. Hun Many, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sons, was also in attendance.
Nuon Chea, the tribunal said, “played a leading role in laying the foundations for Democratic Kampuchea … from the dawn of the revolution,” referring to the official name of the Khmer Rouge government.
He was also involved in all key meetings and decisions “as Pol Pot’s loyal right hand man” and between periods in 1976 and 1977, took over Pol Pot’s leadership after his leave of absence.
Nuon Chea, who complained of ill-health, was allowed half-way through the proceedings to remove himself from the courtroom and watch the trial remotely.
The tribunal found Khieu Samphan guilty of all the crimes he was charged except for genocide against the Cham minority, for which the court “was unable to identify or infer genocidal intent” on his part, according to a summary of judgment.
“The trial is a part of the process of providing justice for the victims who were killed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, as well as for those who survived,” said tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra at a press briefing on Thursday, local media reported.
“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 added.
Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, says that “the verdicts against former Khmer Rouge leaders should help Cambodians put a sordid chapter in their country’s history behind them, giving them a sense that some justice has been done and can be done.”
But the tribunal has had a mixed history itself. Although its inception was long debated since the late 1990s, after the Cambodian civil war came to an end and the last of the Khmer Rouge leaders gave up their struggle, the tribunal wasn’t formed until 2006.
After more than a decade, it has now convicted just three individuals at the combined cost US$318 million, a massive sum in Cambodia’s poor context.
In 2010, the tribunal prosecuted its first defendant, Kang Kek Iew, better known as “Comrade Duch”, chief of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh where thousands of civilians and political prisoners were executed during the regime. It is now a genocide museum open to the public.
Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, two other alleged perpetrators of genocide and part of Case 002 died in 2013 and 2014, respectively, during their trials.
While some survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime say they are happy that justice has been delivered, many think that investigations haven’t been far-reaching and possible perpetrators have escaped justice.
There are also complaints about the high cost of the trial, which has largely been funded by foreign nations, especially Japan, which has provided more than a third of the tribunal’s entire funding.
“The tribunal was hardly effective – at $300 million for three defendants. $100 million each. And these three are responsible for 1.7 million deaths, that’s 566,666 deaths per defendant?” skeptically stated Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
“But, of course, Duch was responsible for around 12,273 deaths, so Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea get the rest?” he added.
From the outset, it was decided that the only crimes investigated by the court would be those committed between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was in power.
But the Khmer Rouge controlled swathes of the country long before it took over Phnom Penh in 1975, and continued to commit atrocities throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
Cambodia still faces the arduous task of removing landmines laid along the Thai border by Khmer Rouge remnant forces in the 1980s.
After ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Vietnamese-backed government held a “People’s Revolutionary Tribunal” in Phnom Penh which found Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, a foreign minister and deputy prime minister, guilty of genocide in absentia.
The Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government in the mid-1980s also appealed for support for an international tribunal, yet this was rejected by several Western countries which then backed the ousted Khmer Rouge.
Critics also say that the current Cambodian government has repeatedly tried to limit the tribunal’s scope in recent years by preventing it from investigating mid-ranking Khmer Rouge officials.
“Prosecuting those responsible for the mass killings perpetrated under the Khmer Rouge regime is a necessary and noble endeavor. But the way the ECCC is established leaves a lot to be desired,” says Sam Rainsy, the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main opposition that was forcibly dissolved last year.
“It has, at best, rendered a selective and fragmented – therefore non-satisfactory – justice by allowing the Hun Sen regime to control the judicial processes and proceedings,” he added.
Some of the most senior leaders of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979 when it was installed following the Khmer Rouge regime’s collapse, were former Khmer Rouge officials themselves, including Hun Sen.
Hun Sen was a deputy regional commander in the Eastern Region, near the Vietnamese border, and lost an eye fighting for the Khmer Rouge.
Heng Samrin, a former chief of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, as the CPP was previously known, and now National Assembly president, was also a mid-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Hun Sen has claimed that any new trials could provoke “civil war” in Cambodia. The process has also often been complicated by the competing agendas and desires of the local and international investigators and judges on the mixed court.
Earlier this year, the tribunal’s international investigating judge announced plans to investigate Ao An, deputy secretary of the Central Zone under the Khmer Rouge regime. Months later, however, the Cambodian contingent of the tribunal reportedly asked for the case to be dropped.
Last year, the government stated that former Khmer Rouge cadre Im Chaem did not fit in the “most responsible” category, despite her being accused of overseeing the deaths of tens of thousands of people in labor camps.
There are formally four more individuals who have been charged under the ECCC’s remit, though it remains to be seen if they will be brought to trial. “Cambodia’s current government would certainly now like to see a quick winding down of the ECCC,” said Chambers.
But despite criticism of the tribunal, many Cambodians who spoke to Asia Times said they were happy that some justice, even if limited, has been delivered.