Thirty-nine years after Phnom Penh was forcibly emptied by gun-toting Khmer Rouge soldiers, setting off a chain of events in which an estimated 1.7 million people died, leaders of the regime were on Thursday found guilty of crimes against humanity.
The convictions and life sentences handed down to Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan—which they plan to appeal—bring to an end the first phase of a case against them that has spanned several years and cost tens of millions of dollars.
After reading a summary of the judgment—which focused on the pair’s criminal responsibility for the evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the forced movement of people in a second distinct phase and the execution of Lon Nol soldiers and officials at a desolate site in Pursat province—88-year-old Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, and 83-year-old Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, took to the dock.
Nuon Chea’s inability to stand and face his judgment was a reminder of the years it has taken the U.N.-backed court—which began operations in 2007—to reach a verdict.
During the trial that spanned nearly three years, the court had been told that, as deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Nuon Chea was “directly responsible and responsible as a superior” for the crimes being tried and shared, along with other party leaders, “the intent to commit the crimes involved.”
After twice ordering the octogenarian to his feet, Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn conceded that he could remain seated in his wheelchair.
Judge Nonn told Nuon Chea that he was “guilty of the crimes against humanity of extermination (encompassing murder), political persecution and other inhumane acts…committed within the territory of Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and December of 1977.”
Sitting in the glassed-off public gallery behind Nuon Chea, who wore dark sunglasses for the duration of the hearing, hundreds of civil parties, regime survivors, government officials and diplomats sat in almost complete silence.
Nuon Chea appeared impassive.
The Trial Chamber judges found that Khieu Samphan’s liability was not as extensive as his counterpart. Judge Nonn said the judges were “not satisfied” with evidence that he had held a position of power at the shadowy Office 870, often attributed as having been the nerve center of the regime. They also dismissed the charges that he had ordered the crimes and had superior responsibility.
Still, they found the former Khmer Rouge head of state to have been part of a joint criminal enterprise that committed crimes against humanity. Judge Nonn repeated, word for word, the same conviction for Khieu Samphan that he read out for Nuon Chea.
Again, the defendant was expressionless.
Because the crimes were on such a massive scale, Judge Nonn said, the chamber sentenced both men to life behind bars—a fate that was all but inevitable given their age and continued detention during the next portion of their case. Initial hearings for the second phase of case 002, which will include charges of genocide, were held last week.
Throughout the first trial, horrific stories of suffering and systematic abuse were replayed by some of the 3,869 civil parties who applied to be part of the case. Families were ripped apart, mothers buried their babies and others lived on cockroaches to survive.
These stories formed a key part of the judgment’s summary by illustrating the devastating reality wrought by the forced evacuations and months that followed.
People living under the Khmer Rouge suffered “immeasurable harm, including physical suffering, economic loss, loss of dignity, psychological trauma and grief arising from the loss of family members or close relations,” the summary said.
Outside the courtroom, there were mixed emotions among those who lived to see judgment day.
Sam Yoeun, whose husband and five children perished during the three years, eight months and 20 days the regime was in power, burst into tears.
“I am crying because I am very satisfied with the verdict,” said the 79-year-old civil party from Svay Rieng province. “These are tears of joy. I will go to the pagoda and light incense to tell [my family] that those who killed them have been sentenced to life imprisonment. It will let their souls rest in peace, because there is justice now.”
But the decision did not sit well with 58-year-old Suon Vanthan.
“The verdict was too light for me,” he said. “I am not happy with the sentence of life imprisonment. These accused—Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan—should have been convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. I wanted their bones to be handcuffed and shackled like they did to others during their brutal leadership.”
Chhuon Lang, a 67-year-old civil party from Kompong Cham province, said she would have been “happy to see them walk out of the detention facilities since they are very old, but only if they had been brave enough to tell the truth about who the leaders were behind the mass killings.”
In this phase of the trial, however, that was not to be.
In May 2013, Nuon Chea did tell the court he took moral responsibility for what happened during the regime, while Khieu Samphan at the same time expressed his condolences to its victims.
But ultimately, when both spoke for the last time in court in October, the two men remained defiant. Their legal teams separately said they intend to appeal the convictions, which they have 30 days to do.
Victor Koppe, the international defense lawyer for Nuon Chea, said the team’s “highest priority” now is to seek the recusal of the panel of judges, who are set to try the second phase of the case, because the lawyers feel they will “no longer be impartial” in their conduct.
Arthur Vercken, one of the international lawyers for Khieu Samphan, said they plan to “fight to the very end” because the verdict was “unjust and without basis.”
“There was no concrete evidence pointing to Khieu Samphan’s participation in decision-making and implementing the evacuation of Phnom Penh. It is an acquittal we will be seeking at the appeals,” he said.
Prosecutors were predictably pleased with the outcome. National co-prosecutor Chea Leang told reporters after the hearing that life sentences were the only appropriate penalties the court could have considered, and that the verdict helped reset the country’s moral compass.
However, she added, “this judgment will not turn back time or give back life to those executed, or those who died of heat and exhaustion or lack of food and water or medical assistance; it won’t rebuild families left broken in every part of Cambodia.”
During the reading, Judge Nonn also told the court that 11 of the 13 proposed reparations projects for victims of the regime had been endorsed, including a National Remembrance Day and the construction of a memorial in Phnom Penh to honor victims of the evacuation.
Flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and a number of government officials and diplomats, the U.N.’s special expert on the court, David Scheffer, said after the verdict was announced that it was a landmark moment.
“Today, the winds of international justice swept through the rice fields of Cambodia, through its cities, its villages, its forests, once again it has done so. And it will do so again,” he said.
Mr. An, too, was pleased with the verdict.
“For myself, I am contented with the judgment and the sentencing handed down to the accused,” he said. “Today’s pronouncement of judgment is clearly a testament of the success of this tribunal.”
Heather Ryan, a court monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the day offered signs that the wheels of justice are turning, no matter how slow.
“I think this is an important day for the court; the court has established itself at a new level of legitimacy, and that’s really important.”
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