Cambodia's 'Brutal' Khmer Rouge Leaders Ordered Jailed For Life

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This handout photo taken and released by the U.N. backed tribunal Aug. 7, 2014 shows former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (C) in the courtroom in Phnom Penh.
This handout photo taken and released by the U.N. backed tribunal Aug. 7, 2014 shows former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (C) in the courtroom in Phnom Penh.

Updated at 4.35 p.m. ET on 2014-08-07

A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on Thursday found two top leaders of Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge regime guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life imprisonment in a verdict hailed by human rights groups and some of the surviving victims.

The sentences against octogenarians Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the group's late leader, Pol Pot, and former head of state Khieu Samphan were the first against the top brass of the regime accused of killing nearly two million people during a reign of terror about four decades ago.

Judge Nil Nonn said the duo, the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, were "guilty of the crimes against humanity" of murder and extermination, political persecution, and other "inhumane acts."

Their lawyers said Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, would file an appeal but the court had earlier ruled that they would remain in jail until any final judgment is made due to "the gravity of the crimes" during the "Killing Fields" era from 1975-1979.

“The punishment is not appropriate for what he did," Khieu Samphan’s lawyer Kong Sam Onn said. "I will appeal the verdict.”  

In frail health, the two men showed no visible reaction when the judge announced the verdict. They had denied wrongdoing in their defense.

Nuon Chea, known as "Brother Number Two" for being Pol Pot's trusted deputy, and Khieu Samphan, one of the few public faces of the brutal regime, now face a second trial that is due to start in September or October on charges of genocide.

Pol Pot died in 1998 and only one Khmer Rouge senior official—former prison chief Duch—has been convicted and jailed for crimes committed by the regime.

Probe since 2006

Officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the U.N. tribunal 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.

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who attended the hearing, said in a joint statement with the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs Stephen Mathias that the ruling was a  "milestone in the work of the ECCC and a historic moment in international criminal justice."

Regime victims welcome verdict

Survivors of the brutal regime and children of those who perished at that time welcomed the verdict but said other senior officials who served under the regime should also be punished.

They also called for compensation for the victims.

“The verdict is acceptable,” said Bou Meng, who was among those who managed to flee the Khmer Rouge prison camp in Phnom Penh, code-named S21, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured, executed, and dumped in mass graves.

“There must be compensation based on their guilt.  I can’t accept when there is no compensation,” he said.

Another victim, Soun Vann Thorn, said he could not accept the verdict totally because the Khmer Rouge leaders were too old to undergo the misery of a life imprisonment.

“I can’t accept the verdict 100 percent," he said, asking the tribunal to also push ahead with "cases 003 and 004" aimed not at the Khmer Rouge's very top leadership but at five other leaders also most responsible for serious crimes during the reign of terror.

“There are many former Khmer Rouge officials who are still alive and have failed to testify,” he said.

A former Khmer Rouge soldier, who refused to be named, said he still believed the Khmer Rouge leaders were innocent.

“I don’t see any mistakes they made,” he said. “As a soldier, we didn’t know about the killings.”

The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 21 NGOs working in the fields of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, said it "applauds" the verdict and judgment.

"The ECCC and the international community send a clear signal that persons responsible for the commission of mass atrocity crimes will eventually be brought to justice," it said in a joint statement.


The CHRAC also said it remained concerned that there was no financial capacity in the ECCC to support most of the reparation projects for victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The tribunal decided to endorse 11 reparation projects for victims and called for them to be fully implemented.

The CHRAC said that "lack of funding remains a serious concern as NGO partners proceed to plan and design reparation projects to submit" to the tribunal for the upcoming genocide case.

Global rights group Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Rupert Abbott said the long-awaited ECCC ruling was an important step towards justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge period and highlighted "the importance of addressing impunity.”

He said that an earlier refusal of senior Cambodian government officials to give evidence, as well as allegations of political interference in other ECCC cases, was troubling and raised concerns around the fairness of the proceedings and respect for victims’ right to hear the full truth regarding the alleged crimes.

“Fair and effective trials are crucial if the ECCC is to leave a lasting legacy which strengthens Cambodia’s very fragile judicial system and contributes towards ending the deep culture of impunity.

“The ECCC must complete all of its cases in a timely and fair manner without political interference. This will require the full support of the Cambodian government and the international community.”

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

Comments (7)

khmer kid

from battambang

the communist vietnamese committed no crimes against cambodians, but the communist chinese did so. is this how history is being understood and accepted by cambodians.

Aug 08, 2014 07:43 PM

Anonymous Reader

Yes, the Chinese communist complicit in the killing from the beginning. No doubt about that. The Vietnamese communist only invaded Cambodia after, the annoying Khmer Rouge, prodded and poked the Vietnamese by shelling the island, Koh Tral, and raiding villages along the border. Khmer didn't invite the Vietnamese in, or that the Vietnamese wanted to save Khmer from Khmer Rouge slaughterhouse. Once the Vietnamese were in, they didn't want to leave. They only left after the Soviet, which supported the Vietnamese invasion, collapsed in the 90s. If it wouldn't for the collapsed of Soviet Union, Cambodians would probably be speaking Vietnamese now.

Aug 11, 2014 03:05 PM

khmer kid

from battambang

their communist idealogy made them efficient killers. wondering if the communist chinese, communist vietnamese, communist russians and their loyal supporters were also responsible criminals back then.

Aug 08, 2014 03:23 AM

Anonymous Reader

The Chinese communist, yes. Vietnamese communist, no. Soviet communist, no. Loyal supporters, yes, Hun Sen, Chea Sim, Heng Samrin before they defected to Vietnam. Keat Chon, Hor Nam Hong, and Meas Mut stayed loyal even after Vietnamese invasion.

I wonder how many people were killed by these people above? The Khmer Rouge did the most killing in the beginning which means all of them are involved. And toward the end, this is when Hun Sen and his gang fled to Vietnam. This is when the guppies started to eat their young.

Aug 08, 2014 07:50 AM

Anonymous Reader

"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."

Isn't hypocritical of him? He lambasted Khmer Rouge "killing field" and lauded January 7, and now he discourages the court from going further? Is he for or against Khmer Rouge?

I'm beginning to see what Hun Sen is saying. He's against "old Khmer Rouge" but for "new Khmer Rouge." The current government is the "new Khmer Rouge." How many former Khmer Rouge are in this government?

Aug 07, 2014 01:17 PM

phetsakhat sorphainam

from vientiane

the United nations criminal court should be pardoning him because he is too old to be in jail and that is not punishment and I will call it as sufferer.

Aug 07, 2014 12:24 PM

Anonymous Reader

So you're not in favor of "you do the crime, you do the time?"

What kind of messages are you sending to future criminals? That rule of law doesn't matter?

Aug 07, 2014 01:23 PM

Laotian Runt

is this man-slaughterer your granddad or your dad? The way you babble is nauseating.

Aug 08, 2014 03:17 AM

Anonymous Reader

Another idiot in favor of catch and release policy. Unbelievable!

Aug 08, 2014 01:56 PM

Pol Pot

The Khmer society is always very unequal. But this perk for a genocidal slaughterer is the climax of the Khmer social disparity: While the old common people are desperate for a decent life in their old age, this genocidal slaughterer enjoys a "special treatment in jail" for life without having to concern about a next meal, about clothing and where to sleep.

Aug 07, 2014 12:22 PM

Anonymous Reader

Yeah, like the perk the current regime is getting while the land eviction victims suffering everyday, this regime ignored them like they didn't exist.

Aug 07, 2014 01:01 PM

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