A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on Friday found the last two surviving top leaders of Cambodia's notorious 1970s Khmer Rouge regime guilty of genocide, and sentenced them to life in prison in a verdict hailed by the international community and rights groups.
The sentences against 92-year-old Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the Khmer Rouge’s late leader, Pol Pot, and 87-year-old former head of state Khieu Samphan were the first to include genocide against the top brass of the regime accused of killing nearly two million people during a reign of terror some four decades ago.
The two men are already serving life sentences after being convicted in 2014 by the tribunal—officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)—of crimes against humanity for orchestrating mass disappearances and forced transfers of Cambodians.
On Friday, Judge Nil Nonn ruled that Nuon Chea had committed genocide against Cambodia’s Muslim Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities, while Khieu Samphan was only found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese by reason of joint command.
Experts believe that more than one-third of Cambodia’s 300,000 Cham Muslims died during the “Killing Fields” era from 1975-1979, and while most of the country’s ethnic Vietnamese were deported, some 20,000 who remained were put to death.
Under international law, the two men could not be tried for genocide in connection with their roles in the mass killings of Cambodians during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which instead constitute crimes against humanity.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were also found guilty of several crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement and torture. They had denied wrongdoing in their defense.
The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement Friday welcoming the verdict, calling it “a historic, if long delayed, step for Cambodia.”
”The United States applauds the victims and their advocates for their relentless pursuit of accountability and the witnesses for their courage in sharing painful truths about the horrific abuse they suffered. We also applaud the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for providing the venue for justice for victims of serious atrocity crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.”
The European delegation to Cambodia also applauded the ruling in a statement, saying it had “ensured accountability for the crimes committed” by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press secretary Takeshi Osuga hailed the verdict as an “additional achievement of [the ECCC’s] judicial process,” adding that the Khmer Rouge Trials (KRT) are a “crucial step toward the conclusion of the entire peace process in Cambodia” and the strengthening of rule of law in the country.
“Japan strongly hopes that the trials on the remaining cases are held even more expeditiously and that its mission be completed successfully, bearing in mind the advanced age of both the accused and the victims,” Osuga said.
Friday’s verdicts could be the last for the ECCC, which has faced allegations of political interference by Cambodian government officials and criticism over its lengthy judicial process.
Pol Pot died in 1998 and only one other Khmer Rouge senior official—former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, who is also known as Duch—has been convicted and jailed by the tribunal, which launched its probe on the Khmer Rouge atrocities in 2006 and spent more than U.S. $200 million for its work that included both Cambodian and foreign experts as jurists, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has voiced his disdain for the court and discouraged further cases, warning that further prosecutions could upset reconciliation with ex-guerrillas and trigger conflict.
Rights groups also congratulated the tribunal on Friday’s verdict, with Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, calling it a “momentous milestone for international accountability and justice for perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes.”
But he expressed concern that other Khmer Rouge leaders investigated for the same crimes “will likely never be brought to justice because of the intransigence of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has insisted on truncating the judicial process.”
“Hun Sen and the Cambodian government owe the international community a real explanation for why they demanded Cambodia judges on the tribunal stop prosecution of these two additional cases,” he added.
‘Death knell of democracy’
While Friday’s verdict was seen as a victory for the people of Cambodia, it came on the same day as the one-year anniversary of a ruling by the Supreme Court to dissolve the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over allegations that its president Kem Sokha, who is currently under house arrest, had plotted to topple the government.
Following the Nov. 16, 2017 decision, CNRP candidates were banned from taking part in the country’s July 29, 2018 general election, in which Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all 125 seats being contested in the absence of a viable political opposition.
In a statement issued Friday, the CNRP called the court ruling “the death knell of democracy in Cambodia,” adding that it marked the country’s “descent into dictatorship.”
“Cambodia reverted to one-party rule, reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge era of which Hun Sen and many senior CPP officials had their political development,” the CNRP said.
In order to restore democracy to the country, the CNRP urged the government to to release Kem Sokha and drop charges of treason against him, end the use of the judiciary as “a political tool” by Hun Sen to hamper multi-party democracy, and hold a “free, fair and just re-election.”
CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua, who is living in self-imposed exile, told RFA’s Khmer Service that despite her party’s dissolution, its leaders have tirelessly lobbied the international community to push Hun Sen to release Kem Sokha, reestablish the CNRP, and allow its members to return to politics.
“We have never lost hope about the CNRP’s survival,” she said, adding that international pressure on Hun Sen’s regime has also bolstered the party’s morale.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the CNRP’s statement in an interview with RFA, calling it “demands from an outlaw group.”
On Thursday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn on the margins of the East Asia Summit in Singapore and urged his government to “take tangible actions to promote national reconciliation, including freeing political prisoners, ending the ban on the political opposition, and allowing civil society and media to operate freely,” according to a statement by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.