Cambodia: Court upholds conviction of Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan

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A UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia on Thursday upheld the genocide conviction of the last living leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, which wiped out some 2 million people through starvation, torture, forced labor and mass executions during its 1975-79 rule.

In an appeals hearing, the court confirmed the 2018 life sentence given to the now 91-year-old Khieu Samphan, the head of state for the communist regime.

The verdict is the last that will be delivered by the tribunal, which has succeeded in prosecuting only five Khmer Rouge leaders since being set up 16 years ago. Two of them died during proceedings.

What was Khieu Samphan convicted of?

The genocide conviction pertained to the persecution of ethnic-minority Vietnamese, seen by the Khmer Rouge as dangerous traitors.

In addition, the court upheld Khieu Samphan’s convictions for several crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and enslavement. 

It said these crimes were committed on the basis of a “joint criminal enterprise,” whether or not he personally took part in all crimes. It backed the earlier ruling that Khieu Samphan had “direct contemporaneous knowledge of the commission of crimes and shared the intent for their commission.”

The court did, however, overturn convictions on murder and persecution charges related to two specific locations.

In his trial defense, Khieu Samphan, who was arrested in 2007, had claimed to have had no real decision-making powers despite being the regime’s nominal head of state — an argument that was rejected by the court.

The verdict was heard by some 500 people in the courtroom, including Khmer Rouge survivors, Buddhist monks, diplomats and government officials.

Whom has the court prosecuted?

The head of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” never faced justice, as he died in 1998 before the court was set up.

“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea was sentenced to life for genocide and other crimes, including forced marriages and rapes, in the 2018 trial alongside Khieu Samphan. Nuon Chea died in 2019.

Both men had already been given life sentences by the court in 2014 for crimes against humanity in another case related to the forced evacuation of the capital, Phnom Penh. This incident occurred in April 1975, when Khmer Rouge troops drove the population of the capital into rural labor camps.

The only other person convicted by the special court was Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.

Duch was in charge of the notorious S-21 torture interrogation center, where about 18,000 people were murdered. He died in jail in 2020.

The tribunal, which employed both Cambodian and international judges, has cost more than $330 million (€335.7 million). Although it secured few convictions, experts say it has played an important role in promoting national reconciliation.

What was the Khmer Rouge regime?

The Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was an ultra-Maoist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 before being ousted by an invasion from neighboring Vietnam, also a communist state.

Its reign of terror aimed at establishing what it saw as a utopian agrarian society.

As many as 1.7 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care as the regime sought to further its aims.

tj/es (AFP, AP)

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