The last surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge that brutally ruled Cambodia in the 1970s were convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes Friday by an international tribunal.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life in prison, the same sentence they are already serving after earlier convictions at a previous trial for crimes against humanity connected with forced transfers and mass disappearances of people. Cambodia has no death penalty.
Both men have suggested they were targets of political persecution.
The verdict read aloud in the courtroom by Judge Nil Nonn established that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against the Vietnamese and Cham minorities. Scholars had debated whether suppression of the Chams, a Muslim ethnic group whose members had put up a small but futile resistance against the Khmer Rouge, amounted to genocide. The court found Khieu Samphan not guilty of genocide against the Cham, for lack of evidence, though he was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese under the principle of joint command responsibility.
The Khmer Rouge sought to achieve an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities to establish vast rural communes. Their radical policies led to what has been termed “auto-genocide” through starvation, overwork and execution.
The crimes against humanity convictions covered activities at work camps and cooperatives established by the Khmer Rouge. These offenses comprised murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, attacks on human dignity, enforced disappearances, forced transfers, forced marriages, rape, and persecution on political, religious and racial grounds.
The breaches of the Geneva Convention governing war crimes included willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment.
Nuon Chea, 92, was brought by ambulance and Khieu Samphan by van from the nearby prison where they are held. The prison and the courthouse were custom built for the use of the tribunal, which is officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC.
Both defendants were present as Nil Nonn opened the proceedings, but Nuon Chea suffers heart problems and was granted permission to later move from the hearing room to a separate holding room.
Khieu Samphan, 87, was present for the entire hearing and with the help of two security guards stood as his sentence was read, showing no obvious emotion.
A large crowd of spectators attended Friday’s session, including members of the Cham minority.
Lah Sath, a 72-year-old Cham man from eastern Kampong Cham province, brought his wife and four young granddaughters to Friday’s session. He said he often heard people talking about the trial and sometimes watched it on TV, but decided it was time to see it with his own eyes.
Just talking about the Khmer Rouge brought back horrible memories of life in those years, he said. The Cham were treated as enemies and exploited without mercy as they were forced to do intensive farm labor, he recalled.
Lah Sath said his younger brother was killed by Khmer Rouge for failing to take good care of a cow.
In addition to Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the tribunal has carried out one other prosecution, resulting in the 2010 conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who as head of the Khmer Rouge prison system ran the infamous Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh.
There are fears that politics will thwart the tribunal from undertaking any further prosecutions.
Cambodia’s long-serving, autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared he will allow no further cases to go forward, claiming they would cause instability. Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge commander who defected when the group was in power and was installed in government after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese invasion.
Initial work had been done on two more cases involving four middle-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge, but they have been scuttled or bottled up by the tribunal, which is a hybrid court in which Cambodian prosecutors and judges are paired with international counterparts.
The failure to have more extensive proceedings has discomfited some observers, but others point to the tribunal’s accomplishments.
“International tribunals are better than the alternative, impunity. They will always be political and fall short of expectations,” Alexander Hinton, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of two books about the tribunal, said ahead of Friday’s verdicts. “But justice is usually delivered, even if at times, as has been the case with the ECCC, it staggers across the finish line.”