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Khmer Rouge conviction: 4 questions about Cambodia's historic ruling

Chelsea SheasleyThe Christian Science Monitor

In a long-awaited verdict, a war crimes tribunal on Thursday sentenced the two most senior living leaders of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed in the 1970s.

More than 1.7 million people died between 1975 and 1979, when the ultra-Maoist regime attempted to create an agrarian utopia. Instead, it resulted in mass famine, executions, and torture. 

The war-crimes tribunal, meant to bring a semblance of justice and set a historical record, has been dogged by its slow pace, funding questions, and accusations of political interference.

Who was on trial?

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are the two leaders sentenced in this case, known as Case 002.

Mr. Nuon Chea was second in command to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who died in 1998 and never stood trial. He also helped shape the thinking behind the regime’s radical policies.

Nuon Chea studied law at Thammasat University in Bangkok and was a member of the Thai Communist Party before joining the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the official name for the Khmer Rouge) in 1960.

Mr. Khieu Samphan was Cambodia’s head of state from 1976 to 1979. Like several members of the regime, he studied in France in the 1950s and joined a leftist student group of expatriate Cambodians. 

Of the two other senior leaders meant to be on trial with Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, one died and the other was ruled unfit to stand trial because of an illness.

Why did it take so long?

Not only is today’s verdict three decades after the worst atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, but it is eight years after the war crimes tribunal was established.

One factor was the time-consuming process of establishing the court. Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, was reluctant to allow an international tribunal, arguing that it could destabilize the country. The United Nations finally agreed to a jointly-run tribunal of Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

The court also slowed its pace by deciding to split Case 002 into two parts. The first part was the trial of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for crimes against humanity – that verdict was announced today. The second part of Case 002 will be the trial of the same two defendants for genocide. Opening hearings in Case 002 started in November 2011. 

Once up and running, the court was also delayed by periodic funding shortages. As of December 2013, its total expenditure was $204.6 million, funded mostly by Japan, the United States, and Australia.

The sole previous conviction at the tribunal was in July 2010, when Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was convicted for running the S-21 school-turned-prison in Phnom Pehn. He oversaw thousands of brutal acts of torture to extract often preposterous confessions of conspiring against the regime. 

What's the reaction to the ruling?

The verdict was broadcast live on Cambodian television, and has been prominently covered in the local press. A handful of families were in court when the ruling was read.

“We’ve been waiting for this verdict for more than 30 years,” Norng Chan Phal, who was jailed in S-21 as a child and whose parents were executed, told the New York Times. Mr. Norng Chan Phal said he hopes that the bodies of the defendants are “kept in the prison cells” after they die, instead of getting a proper burial.

Others weren’t aware that the trial was taking place. “I’ve heard from old people that the Khmer Rouge was really bad and they killed many people,” Nuon Chantha said. “I don’t have much time to pay attention to the hearing. I spend most of my day working.” 

“Even though it’s too little, too late for many victims, we need to continue to search for truth and justice. This [verdict] is only the beginning,” Youk Chhang, a Khmer Rouge survivor who runs the nonprofit Documentation Center of Cambodia, and provided documentary evidence to the tribunal, told the Wall Street Journal.

What's next?

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan will appeal their sentences, their lawyers said. 

The second trial for the two, where they face separate charges of genocide, will be the first time the tribunal takes up that issue.

The tribunal could also open two new cases against lower-ranking officials, however it faces resistance from Hun Sen’s government.