Khmer Rouge Leaders Found Guilty of Genocide in Historic Ruling

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—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, Nov. 16, by an international tribunal.

The historic ruling signifies the first time ever that Khmer Rouge officials are found guilty of genocide.

Nuon Chea, 92, was Pol Pot’s deputy, referred to as ‘Brother Number Two’, and Khieu Samphan, 87, was the communist group’s head of state.

The verdict read aloud in the courtroom by Judge Nil Nonn established that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against the Vietnamese and Cham minorities.

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, persecution on political, religious and racial grounds, attacks on human dignity, enforced disappeances, forced transfers, forced marriages and rape.

The breaches of the Geneva Convention governing war crimes included willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment.

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.

Nuon Chea 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.

The two men are already serving life sentences after being convicted in a previous 2011-2014 trial of crimes against humanity connected with forced transfers and disappearances of masses of people.

Cambodia has no death penalty.

Women and Children in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge
Cambodian women and children huddle close together in fear of incoming fire from Khmer Rouge forces on Highway 5, just northwest of Phnom Penh, April 6, 1975. (AP Photo)

Who Were the Khmer Rouge?

The Khmer Rouge, also the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and later called itself the Democratic Kampuchea (DK), killed at least 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979 in its attempts to destroy the nation and import agrarian communist ideals in Cambodia.

The actual death toll is believed to be much higher due to the suffering of malnutrition, starvation, illness and disease, exhaustion from overwork in forced labor in fields or mines, or trauma from the suffering.

The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society. It abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture, according to the Cambodia Tribunal.

The regime followed a Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which insists that rulers of the old society such as the landowners, capitalists, government leaders, and military commanders are “class enemies,” and they can therefore be targeted for elimination by the government.

It was eventually overthrown in 1979 by Vietnamese troops after several violent border confrontations. Pol Pot and some of his forces were forced to retreat into the jungle, where the former dictator died in 1998.

Monks wait outside Khmer Rouge Hearing
Cambodian Buddhist monks wait in queue to enter into the courtroom before the hearings against two former Khmer Rouge senior leaders, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Horrible Memories

Nuon Chea 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 Judge Nil Nonn opened the proceedings, but Nuon Chea suffers heart problems, so was granted permission to later move from the hearing room to a separate holding room.

The large crowd of spectators attending the session on Nov. 16 included members of the Cham, a Muslim ethnic minority.

Lah Sath, a 72-year-old Cham man from eastern Kampong Cham province, brought his wife and four young granddaughters to the 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 under their rule, 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.

Students outside of Khmer Rouge Hearing
Cambodian students enter into the courtroom before the hearings against two former Khmer Rouge senior leaders, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

No More Trials

Cambodia’s long-serving, autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared he will allow no further case 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 from power 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 proceeding 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,” said Alexander Hinton, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of two books about the tribunal.

“But justice is usually delivered, even if at times, as has been the case with the ECCC, it staggers across the finish line.”

By Sopheng Cheang

Jack Phillips and Kelly Ni of The Epoch Times, and Prak Chan Thul of Reuters contributed to this article.

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