New York (August 7, 2014)—Today’s conviction for crimes against humanity of the two most senior surviving leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime marks a historic milestone both for international justice, and for Cambodia’s effort to confront its violent past.
Judges at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) sentenced both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to life imprisonment, after a trial focused on atrocities committed during the evacuation of Cambodian cities and town in 1975, and the executions of civil servants and military officers from the defeated regime.
Nuon Chea was the second most senior leader in the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979; Khieu Samphan served both as foreign minister and as head of state.
The court found that Khieu Samphan was not guilty of directly ordering the crimes under examination, given that he lacked sufficient authority within the Khmer Rouge governing structures. But it concluded that he participated in planning and was party to a joint criminal enterprise involving the regime’s top political ranks.
James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “Nearly forty years after some of the 20th century’s most appalling crimes were committed, the victims have seen the perpetrators brought to account before a court of law. They have been tried fairly, and found guilty. The historic significance of today’s judgments should in no way be diminished by the very real challenges that have at times beset this process.”
Both men were found responsible for crimes against humanity, including executions of former regime loyalists after the fall of Phnom Penh in April, 1975, and the forced evacuation of the civilian population of the capital, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
The verdict marks the end of the first stage of the trial of the two, which began in November 2011 and focused on crimes committed in the aftermath of the fall of Phnom Penh. They now face a second trial on charges arising from the remainder of their period in power that is due to start late this year or early next. This second trial will include charges of genocide, as well as sex crimes. A third defendant, Ieng Sary, died in custody in March last year, while a fourth, Ieng Thirith, was declared unfit to stand trial due to age-related dementia.
The Justice Initiative’s Goldston noted that despite today’s judgment, the ECCC still has much work remaining:
“The decision to split up the charges against the defendants, given their age, has been vindicated,” he said. “But it is important for the victims and the people of Cambodia that the grave charges outstanding will now be heard in full by the court. The international community must support his process, and the judicial resolution of two other outstanding cases, to ensure that the ECCC fulfils its mandate.”
The ECCC was set up with the support of the United Nations in 2005 to try “senior leaders” and those “most responsible” for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge. It combines Cambodian and international judges, lawyers and staff, with a trial chamber of two international and three Cambodian judges handing down today’s verdict.
However, the court has been plagued by a range of challenges, including allegations of corruption among Cambodian staffers early in its mandate, and political interference from the government. Prime minister Hun Sen, in power since 1979 and himself at one time a Khmer Rouge regional commander, has obstructed efforts to pursue two additional investigations, known as Cases 003 and 004.
The court has previously issued only one verdict, giving a life prison sentence in 2010 to Kaing Guak Eav, the former commander of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng torture center.
The Khmer Rouge’s top leader Pol Pot died in 1998.
The Open Society Justice Initiative has maintained a presence in Phnom Penh to monitor developments at the Khmer Rouge tribunal since before it began court proceedings in 2007.