PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - A United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia convicted two former Khmer Rouge leaders of committing crimes against humanity, in a long-awaited verdict for the Southeast Asian country.
The two elderly defendants on Thursday were sentenced to life in prison - the maximum allowable punishment.
The verdict comes more than 35 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of at least one-quarter of the Cambodian population.
The two defendants - former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and chief ideologue Nuon Chea, - received their fates on Thursday in much the same way they had sat through almost two years of testimony: Showing little emotion and staring straight ahead as their sentences were read aloud before a packed courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
“The chamber sentences the accused, Nuon Chea, to life imprisonment. The chamber sentences the accused, Khieu Samphan, to life imprisonment,” Judge Nil Nonn read.
Testimony in the trial dragged on for almost two years, but it took the panel of trial judges less than two hours to read out its verdict Thursday morning.
The court ruled that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were guilty of crimes against humanity, for their leadership roles in implementing the policies of the Khmer Rouge.
“The chamber finds that within the standing committee, Nuon Chea, with Pol Pot exercised the ultimate decision making power of the party,” Nil Nonn said.
Although the decision acknowledged that Khieu Samphan’s main authority in the Khmer Rouge government was focused more on economic matters, his seniority meant he still made a “significant contribution” to Khmer Rouge policies.
Lawyers for both the defendants immediately promised to appeal the verdict.
“We will fight to the very end to have this trial canceled. Because the judgment is unjust and is not based on any valid basis,” said Arthur Vercken, Khieu Samphan’s lawyer. “There is no concrete evidence pointing to Khieu Samphan’s participation in decision making on this basis the judges should have acquitted our client. And it is an acquittal that we will be seeking at the level of the appeals chamber."
The current court only began its work in 2006 after years of wrangling between the Cambodian government and the international community.
It took four years for the tribunal to deliver its first verdict in 2010, when the head of the regime’s notorious S-21 prison, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Thursday’s decision comes in the court’s first case against senior leaders of the regime. That’s why it came as a milestone moment for many Cambodians.
Chhou Theum, 75, came to Phnom Penh from his home in the countryside to hear the verdict in person.
“I think that the verdict is very important not only for me but for the whole country. All of Cambodia experienced the Pol Pot times. They experienced a lot of hardship and difficulty already so that’s why it’s so important,” Chhou Theum said.
Twenty-year-old student Tin Soklim’s grandparents died under the Khmer Rouge before he was born. That’s why he felt a guilty verdict was crucial for him.
“I have to know. I have to know about history. I have to learn from it and why it is like this. I want to know about this,” Tin Soklim said.
Other Khmer Rouge survivors, however, were disappointed.
Henry Chhorn, 62, came from his home in Massachusetts to witness the verdict live. He said even though Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan received the maximum possible sentence, it was nothing compared to the crimes committed by the regime.
“If one person commits a murder, it can be life in prison, also. But this was genocide. It is the whole country’s mass killing. So how do we judge the severity of the crime: including torture and everything? It’s not fair at all,” Henry Chhorn said.
The broad scope of the charges faced by the Khmer Rouge leaders meant that the court controversially split the case into multiple parts.
Thursday’s verdict relates to charges stemming from mass movements of the population that resulted in deaths, and the executions of former government soldiers.
Second phase of trial
So even though the two defendants were convicted and sentenced Thursday, they must still, in theory, sit through at least a second phase of trial, where they stand accused of crimes including genocide against minority Cham and Vietnamese, forced marriage and rape, vast internal purges, and abuses and killings that took place in Khmer Rouge prisons and labor camps.
Such crimes may be more broadly representative of the regime’s impact on the average Cambodian survivor.
Because of the defendants’ advanced ages - Nuon Chea is 88 and Khieu Samphan, 83 - many observers believe there’s a good chance Thursday’s verdict may represent the last chance to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders. And as such, it represents an important milestone for the country.
Long Panhavuth is a court monitor with the Cambodian Justice Initiative.
“We acknowledge that justice is slow. It took a lot of time. It is true that justice should be faster than today,” said Long Panhavuth, a court monitor with the Cambodian Justice Initiative.
“It is true that the victims have been searching and waiting for justice for too long already. But now we get it. I would say that if there is no judgment today, this means that the culprit may go free and unpunished. The new leader can commit crime again and again with the understanding they will go free without any punishment,” Long Panhavuth said.
The Khmer Rouge oversaw the deaths of at least 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979-equivalent to at least one-quarter of the population.
But 35 years after the regime’s fall, few have been held responsible for its crimes, at least before an internationally backed tribunal.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died an elderly man in the Cambodian jungle in 1998.