CAMBODIA: Cambodia’s U.N.-backed tribunal for the Khmer Rouge has ruled in favour of a genocide conviction against the regime’s last surviving leader, more than 40 years since Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime met its downfall.
Khieu Samphan, 91, appealed to the tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), but it was denied on Thursday morning.
Khieu Samphan, a former head of the state, has been incriminated and found guilty of genocide of ethnic minority Vietnamese in 2018.
The defendant listened to the court proceedings through a pair of headphones, his face covered by a mask.
The radical communist movement of the Khmer Rouge bore witness to the mindless slaughter of a staggering 1.5 million to 2 million people through a combination of mass executions, starvation and labour camps, in one of the worst atrocities in the modern 20th century.
The regime was highly autocratic, totalitarian and repressive. Countless deaths occurred as a result of faulty agricultural reforms that led to great famines, and its insistence on a domestic supply of medications did not prove effective in the crisis.
The regime also massacred hundreds of thousands of its political opponents and its racist emphasis on national purity ultimately wiped out a gigantic proportion of the population.
By the time the regime fell out of power in 1979, about 25% of Cambodia’s population had perished.
Kong Sorim, the president of the supreme court chamber of the ECCC, said Khieu’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, disappearance, and other inhumane treatment.”
The court, which is now at the end of its work, has provided a cathartic space for national healing as well as justice but has received backlash for its laxity, cost and vulnerability to interference from the Hun Sen government in delivering such justice.
The international tribunal, which has engaged Cambodian and international judges since its inception in 1997, has cost more than $330m.
Three people have been found guilty as a result of it: Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, who served as Pol Pot’s deputy, and Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, who oversaw the infamous S-21 jail.
Key perpetrators of this death regime died before they could suffer punitive justice, including “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan received the verdict of life imprisonment for charges of mass genocide and other crimes against humanity in 2018 alongside Nuon Chea.
Khieu Samphan “encouraged, incited and legitimised” the criminal practises that resulted in the murder of civilians “on a huge scale,” including the millions who were forced into labour camps to build dams and bridges and the mass killing of Vietnamese people, according to the judgement at the time.
Buddhist monks were forcibly defrocked while Muslims were forced to eat pork.
When citizens of Phnom Penh were forcibly moved to rural labour camps in April 1975, where they were subjected to forced labour, malnutrition, and disease, the two were already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity.
Nuon Chea died back in 2019. Khieu Samphan’s lawyers had accused the tribunal of implementing a “selective approach” to testimony and of using legal criteria unknown to him when the alleged crimes occurred more than 40 years ago.
In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, the administrator of the S-21 jail where about 18,000 prisoners were murdered and tortured, received a 25-year prison term. In the end, he passed away in 2020.