Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal for the Khmer Rouge has upheld a genocide conviction against the regime’s last surviving leader, more than 40 years after Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime fell.
The tribunal, known as the extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia (ECCC), rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, 91, in what was expected to be the final judgment by the court. Khieu Samphan, who was a former head of state, was found guilty in 2018 of crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, and of the genocide of ethnic minority Vietnamese.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge through a combination of mass executions, starvation and labour camps, in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. By the time the regime was ousted in 1979, about 25% of Cambodia’s population had died.
An estimated 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese, as well as 100,000 to 500,000 Cham Muslims were among those killed.
Kong Srim, the president of supreme court chamber of the ECCC, said Khieu Samphan’s case “involves some of the most heinous events that occurred during one of the most tragic and catastrophic periods”.
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, the court heard, “the civilian population was denied basic freedoms and subjected to widespread acts of extreme cruelty. A culture of fear prevailed through mass killings, torture, violence, persecution, forced marriage, forced labour and forced disappearance and other inhumane treatment.”
Khieu Samphan listened to the proceedings in court through a pair of headphones, his face covered by a mask. He had alleged about 1,824 errors in the court’s judgment, ranging from procedural errors to allegations of bias.
His appeals were rejected and sentence of life in prison upheld.
The court, which will now conclude its work, has provided a space for national healing and as well as justice, but it has also been criticised for its slowness, cost and vulnerability to interference from the government of Hun Sen.
Key perpetrators have died before they could face justice, including “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
The court, which was formed in 1997 and includes both Cambodian and international judges, has cost more than $330m (£290m).
It has led to three convictions, including Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who was head of the notorious S-21 prison.
“There is no success in dealing with the punishment of the crime of genocide … I would like to ask, what would be enough?” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.
While the tribunal may have ended, work to remember the events would continue, he added. “That effort must be continue. Stories must be documented, that [is] perhaps the only way we will learn,” he said, adding that genocide should be integrated into school curriculums, as well as discussed at a global level.
Khieu Samphan was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and other crimes in 2018 alongside Nuon Chea.
The judgment at the time emphasised that Khieu Samphan “encouraged, incited and legitimised” the criminal policies that led to the deaths of civilians “on a massive scale”, including the millions forced into labour camps to build dams and bridges and the mass extermination of Vietnamese. Buddhist monks were forcibly defrocked while Muslims were forced to eat pork.
The pair were already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity over the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975, when the city’s residents were taken to rural labour camps where they faced hard labour, starvation and disease.
Nuon Chea died in 2019.
Kaing Guek Eav, who ran the S-21 prison where around 18,000 people were tortured and murdered, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010. He died in 2020.
Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns Ming Yu Hah said Thursday’s ruling “should serve as another reminder that accountability for the most serious crimes has no expiration date”.
“The tribunal has served as an important platform for public discussion of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous reign, and as a place where victims’ voices can be heard, recorded and publicised,” she said, while adding that the work of supporting victims and survivors was not finished.
“Impunity for human rights violations remains a serious problem in Cambodia today, and if authorities seek to uphold international law and human rights then they must ensure that their national court system is independent, impartial and able to make justice a feature of Cambodian society rather than an exception,” said Ming Yu Hah.