Khmer Rouge leaders jailed for life for 'extermination' of millions

Justice catches up with pair, decades after murderous regime's demise

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 7:42pm

Watch: Khmer Rouge leadership duo jailed for life

Three and a half decades after the fall of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, a UN-backed tribunal yesterday sentenced two top leaders of the former regime to life in prison for crimes against humanity during the country's 1970s reign of terror that left close to two million dead.

The historic verdicts were announced against Khieu Samphan, the regime's 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue, known as "Brother No 2" - the only two surviving leaders of the regime left to stand trial.

The tribunal's chief judge, Nil Nonn, said both men were guilty of "extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity".

There was no visible reaction from either of the accused, both of whom have denied wrongdoing. The pair can appeal, but Nil Nonn told the court that "given the gravity of the crimes" both would remain in detention.

Nearly a quarter of the population - about 1.7 million people - died under the Khmer Rouge through starvation, medical neglect, overwork and executions between 1975 and 1979.

Survivors travelled from across the country to witness the verdict. Many said they felt mixed reactions and questioned if any punishment could fit the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

"The crimes are huge, and just sentencing them to life in jail is not fair," said 54-year-old Chea Sophon, who spent years in hard labour camps. His brother was killed. "Even if they die many times over, it would not be enough," he added.

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".

The tribunal, comprising of Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has spent more than US$200 million, yet it had convicted only one defendant - prison director Kang Khek Iev, also known as "Duch", who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.

Because of the poor health of the defendants, the case was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they died. Both men face a second trial, due to start next month or in October, on charges of genocide.