Khmer Rouge leaders to appeal life sentences handed down by UN-backed Cambodia court

Historic verdicts announced against Khieu Samphan, regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 11:43am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 5:29pm

Two former Khmer Rouge leaders convicted on Thursday for crimes against humanity by Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes tribunal will appeal the verdicts and life prison terms, their lawyers said.

“We will appeal the verdict and sentence ... it is unjust for my client. He did not know or commit many of these crimes,” Son Arun, a lawyer for Nuon Chea, 88, said.

Kong Sam Onn, a lawyer for the second defendant, 83-year-old former regime head of state Khieu Samphan, said: “This is not justice ... We will appeal the verdict and sentence.”

The historic verdicts were announced against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the only two leaders of the regime left to stand trial, three and a half decades after the end of the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in which 2 million people died.

The tribunal’s chief judge Nil Nonn asked both men to rise for the verdicts but the frail Nuon Chea said he was too weak to stand from his wheelchair and was allowed to remain seated.

There was no visible reaction from either of the accused as the judge said both men were found guilty of crimes against humanity, forced transfers, forced disappearances and attacks against human dignity and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were “guilty of the crimes against humanity, of extermination ... political persecution, and other inhumane acts,” said Nil Nonn.

Nil Nonn told the court that “given the gravity of the crimes” both men would remain in detention if they appeal.

The case, covering the forced exodus of millions of people from Cambodia’s towns and cities and a mass killing, is just part of the Cambodian story. Nearly a quarter of the population died under their rule, through a combination starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution when the group held power from 1975 to 1979.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen called it "a historic day for both the Cambodian people and the court."

"The victims have waited 35 years for legal accountability, and now that the tribunal has rendered a judgment, it is a clear milestone," he said.

Many have criticised the slow justice, and its cost. The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and comprising of Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has since spent more than US$200 million, yet it had convicted only one defendant – prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.

The current trial began in November 2011 and started out with four Khmer Rouge leaders. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died last year, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan has acknowledged that mass killings took place. But testifying before the court in 2011, he claimed he was just a figurehead who had no real authority. He denied ordering any executions himself, calling the allegations a “fairy tale.” Instead, he blamed Pol Pot for its extreme policies.

Nuon Chea, who is known as Brother No 2 for being Pol Pot’s trusted deputy, had also denied responsibility, testifying in 2011 that Vietnamese forces - not the Khmer Rouge - had killed Cambodians en masse.

“I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals,” he said of those observing the trial. “Nothing is true about that.”

Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they die.

Both men now face a second trial that is due to start in September or October, this time on charges of genocide, Olsen said. That trial is expected to take years to complete.

The verdict, after a two-year trial, is likely to bring a measure of justice to those who survived the Khmer Rouge years, three decades after the regime’s fall.

A few dozen survivors, many travelling from far-flung rural provinces, arrived early to join some 900 Cambodians at the Phnom Penh-based court to watch the verdicts.

Speaking before the verdict, Suon Mom, a 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer Rouge era, said she is keen to see justice finally served, even if it is generations late.

“My anger remains in my heart,” she said. “I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink ... Hopefully the court will sentence the two leaders to life in prison.”

Survivor Khieu Pheatarak, 70, said the verdict was a victory for all Cambodians.

“This is the justice that I have been waiting for these last 35 years,” she said. 

“I will never forget the suffering but this is a great relief for me. It is a victory and an historic day for all Cambodians,” she said.

She was among tens of thousands forced from her home in the capital at  gunpoint in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge’s peasant army, as the regime tried to create a communist agrarian utopia.

The plan spectacularly backfired, leading to the collapse of the economy  and mass starvation, while Khmer Rouge cadres embarked on a bloody purge of perceived enemies of their revolution.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press