The sentencing of two former Khmer Rouge officials in Cambodia on Thursday was met with relief and renewed sadness in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town community, home to the largest Cambodian population in the United States.
Many of the residents there are refugees from Cambodia, where nearly 2 million people were killed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, are the only two remaining Khmer Rouge leaders who survived to stand trial.
A U.N. war crimes tribunal found both men guilty Thursday of “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhuman acts,” the Associated Press reported. They were both sentenced to life in prison.
“I’m just happy to still be alive to see these two men brought to justice,” said Long Beach resident Sath Um, 94, whose husband and four sons were killed during the regime’s rule. Um, speaking through a translator, said the Khmer Rouge jailed her several times and she feared she would be killed, too.
Um said had been waiting for justice since 1980, when she fled the country, and appreciates the efforts of international organizations to convict the pair. “Now, when I die, I will close my eyes in peace.”
Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, and Chea, also known as Brother No. 2 and a close Pol Pot confidant, had denied responsibility for years, a fact that continues to anger Cambodian immigrants
“Without their orders, none of that could have happened,” said Steve Meng, 45, a Long Beach loan officer who spent 10 years in a refugee camp before moving to the United States. “They should at least admit what they did was wrong, killing their own people.”
Meng says he was forced to work in the fields at the age of 7, weeding sweet potato plants on meager rations of food. “I don’t understand why it took them 30 years to bring them to justice,” he said.
Nancy Lee, director of Hope for Cambodian Seniors, a Long Beach-based organization serving the elderly in the community, says she was too young to remember the violence that took her father and grandfather, but has seen the effects of generations of pain on the people the group serves.
“These people are living the pain daily. They go to sleep seeing flashes of memories in front of them,” Lee said. “For me, personally, sending an 88-year-old person to jail -- that’s not really punishment for them. They have lived their whole life already.”
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