The U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal held its final session Thursday, rejecting an appeal by the last surviving leader of the brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, one of only three men convicted in the 16-year trial process.
Led by the notorious Pol Pot, the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge killed some 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, overwork, or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia. They were finally removed from power by Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia in 1979.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was set up to hold former Khmer Rouge leaders to account for the deaths.
Khieu Samphan, 91, lost his appeal of his 2018 conviction and life sentence for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his leadership role in Khmer Rouge.
Khieu Samphan, who is serving a life sentence for a 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity, had argued he was the titular head of state without decision-making powers in the Khmer Rouge regime during its bloody revolution and reign of terror.
His appeal against his 2018 genocide conviction asserted that the lower court had made more than 1,800 errors, but the ECCC Supreme Court rejected virtually all his arguments.
“I am unhappy with the Supreme Court’s misunderstanding about the facts of the case that led to the conviction. The misunderstanding including his role in the Khmer Rouge,” said Khieu Samphan’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn.
A ‘clean person’
Khieu Samphan, his lawyer said, was “a clean person among other Khmer Rouge leaders” and “didn’t have the power to make any decisions during meetings.”
“The court wanted to convict him before he dies. The court wanted to speed up the case to make sure the verdict is released before Khieu Samphan dies,” said Kong Sam Onn.
While many welcomed the verdict, some former Khmer Rouge soldiers defended Khieu Samphan and said members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who were former Khmer Rouge leaders should be brought to trial as well.
Former Khmer Rouge soldier Thong Thun in the western Cambodian province of Pailin said agreed with Khieu Samphan’s defense that he didn’t have power during his time as a ruler.
“The court shouldn’t put him in jail for the rest of his life. It is embarrassing,” he told RFA Khmer.
“Those other killers are still walking free and only a few were convicted,” he said, referring to members of the CPP who were former Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen, who was a middle-ranking commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting, has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist since 1985.
Another former soldier, who asked not to be named, dismissed the trial as a show to punish some former Khmer Rouge leaders while letting others get away with crimes.
“The court shouldn’t put (Khieu Samphan) in jail for the rest of life, he is getting old,” he said.
Some observers have questioned the merit of a legal process that took $337 million and 16 years to but convicted only three men, two of whom are dead.
Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader and chief ideologist, was convicted along with Khieu Samphan and was serving a life sentence when he died in 2019 at age 93.
The tribunal’s third convicted Khmer Rouge figure was of Kaing Guek Eav. Also known as Duch, commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, he died in 2020 at age 77 while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity, murder and torture. The top Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in the jungle in 1998 at age 72.
Patrick Murphy, the U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh, issued a statement saying the tribunal “leaves an important legacy detailing some of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history and making contributions to truth, reconciliation, and justice in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Former ECCC investigator Craig Etcheson told the Associated Press the court “successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge, and showed that though it might take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity.”
“The tribunal also created an extraordinary record of those crimes, comprising documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, that will educate Cambodia’s youth about the history of their country, and that will deeply frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” said Etcheson, who was chief of investigations for the prosecution at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012.
Translated by Samean Yun. Written by Paul Eckert.