Soum Rithy, left, cries as he embraces Chum Mey, a survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison, following the verdict in the trial of two former Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh. (AFP Photo/Tang Chhin Sothy)
The Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday sentenced Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan to life in prison, for their role in the brutal regime.
The two men are the most senior living leaders of the Khmer Rouge, whose violent communist revolution cost an estimated 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979.
Speaking at the verdict announcement, chief judge Nil Nonn found the men responsible for “a widespread and systematic attack against the population of Cambodia”.
Both men were found guilty of crimes against humanity for forced evacuations across the country and a mass execution of Lon Nol soldiers.
A second part of the same case – expected to begin in September or October – will hear genocide charges and those related to rape, forced marriage, internal purges and a number of other crimes.
At court this morning in Phnom Penh, hundreds gathered to watch the pronouncement against the two men – neither of whom showed any discernable emotion. As victims and their families gathered afterwards, some weeping in joy, lawyers for both defense parties called the verdicts highly unjust and said they would be appealing.
The trial, part one of a case divided into several parts, focused solely on charges related to population movements and the murder of Khmer Republic soldiers at the Tuol Po Chrey execution site.
To create their agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge moved millions of Cambodians thousands of kilometers away from their homes, installing them on collectives and worksites.
The evacuation of Phnom Penh, carried out under the pretext of saving people from impending US bombings, saw an estimated two million people – including the sick, elderly, and pregnant – forcibly cleared out after the Khmer Rouge took the city on April 17, 1975.
During the trial that started in November 2011 and has run for more than two years, witnesses spoke of patients being turned out of hospitals, civilians arbitrarily executed, and roads so overcrowded that fatal stampedes occurred on multiple occasions.
At court on Thursday, Judge Nonn repeatedly read from testimony highlighting the horrors of the evacuations.
“Civil party Pin Yathay described how the further they travelled from the capital, the more that exhaustion claimed the sick, the injured, the lame and the old, and increasingly they began to see bodies left beside the highway. Pech Srey Phal stated that by the time they reached Stung Meanchey, they saw dead people on hospital beds abandoned by the roadside,” he told the court.
Though the life sentences came as little surprise for many observers, some victims were emotionally shaken by the announcement.
Suom Rithy broke down as he left the courtroom, throwing himself into the arms of another victim.
“I was so happy, I could not control my emotions and that’s why I cried. I know its a contradictory emotion; some people laugh, others cry,” he explained later.
The son of a Khmer Republic soldier, Rithy was imprisoned for two years during the regime. His father and three brothers were killed.
“This is what I have been waiting for, for 30 to 40 years. This is justice for me, as well as the other people killed and imprisoned then.”
During a press conference held after the announcement, national prosecutor Chea Leang admitted it was a long overdue verdict.
“For 35 years, the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea have evaded justice for some of the most brutal crimes. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan and other leaders turned this country into a slave state where they persecuted the population… in order to produce their goals,” she said.
“The judgment is a statement to those who commit mass crimes that they must be punished by imprisonment no matter how long or little they have to live.”
Concerns over the age and health of the accused have colored much of the trial. Intended tobe the court’s cornerstone trial, Case 002 has been plagued with accusations of political interference and mismanagement, but also hampered by the age of the accused.
Only half of the original defendants made it to the verdict. Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was declared unfit to stand trial in September 2012 due to dementia.
Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, too, have repeatedly seen trial delays due to their poor health. At court today, Nuon Chea was brought out in a wheelchair and told the judge he was “unable” to stand when the verdict was finally delivered.
Many fear the remaining two defendants will not make it through the next part of the trial, which is expected to take far longer due to the number of crimes to be adjudicated.
Lawyers for both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan said they would file appeals, with the former announcing the intention to file bias motions against the judges.
“The way the summary was formulated, there seems to be a very strong bias against our client,” said Victor Koppe, a lawyer for Nuon Chea. “It is our highest priority, the motion for recusal for those five judges.”
The court did not rule Khieu Samphan guilty of ordering the crimes, saying he did not hold “a position of sufficient authority to issue orders to commit the crimes.”
Instead, they said he was guilty because of his involvement in a joint criminal enterprise – a controversial doctrine that can hold defendants equally liable even if they had no direct knowledge of the planned crime.
Lawyers for Khieu Samphan pointed to the hefty sentence despite the finding as proof of an unjust verdict.
“For sure we will appeal against this judgment,” said attorney Kong Sam Onn.
This is only the second conviction for the UN-backed tribunal, which began in 2006 following years of wrangling.
In February 2012, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, received a life imprisonment sentence for his role as head of the notorious Tuol Sleng detention center, where some 12,000 people were tortured and executed.
The tribunal could yet hear further cases. Two investigations remain pending against four mid-ranking cadres accused of war crimes, but the government has made it clear it has no intention of seeing the cases go forward.
While most victims were pleased with the outcome, others said they would have preferred to see harsher punishments.
Pech Srey Phal, the civil party quoted during the judgment, said she was upset the court didn’t hand down death sentences – against Cambodian law - for the pair.
“It’s not enough. They killed so many people. What I want to see is execution right away.”
Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin.