PHNOM PENH, Cambodia : Three and a half decades after the genocidal rule of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge ended, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal is due to deliver its first verdicts Thursday in a historic case against the only two leaders of the regime left to stand trial.
Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue, face sentences ranging from five years to life for their role in the 1970s terror. Both men, in dire health, have denied any wrongdoing.
The case, covering the forced exodus of millions of people from Cambodia’s towns and cities and a mass killing, is just part of the Cambodian story. Nearly a quarter of the population died under their rule, through a combination starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution when the group held power in 1975-79.
Many have criticized the slow justice, and its cost. The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and comprising of Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has since spent more than $200 million, yet it has only convicted one defendant — prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
The current trial began in November 2011 and started out with four Khmer Rouge leaders. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea have both been charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Any sentence is likely to be a death sentence since both men are in frail health and have required occasional hospitalization during the trial.
Khieu Samphan has acknowledged that mass killings took place. But testifying before the court in 2011, he claimed he was just a figurehead who had no real authority. He denied ordering any executions himself, calling the allegations a “fairy tale.” Instead, he blamed Pol Pot for its extreme policies.
He also said he believed when he was young, that communism — which Khmer Rouge cadres took to the extreme, virtually enslaving the entire population in a bid to create an agrarian utopia — had given him hope when he was young, and the movement had opposed a pro-Western regime and neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia’s traditional enemy.
Nuon Chea, who is known as Brother No. 2 for being Pol Pot’s trusted deputy, has appeared less repentant. At the start of the trial, in 2011, he blamed Vietnamese forces for killing Cambodians. “I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals,” he said of those observing to the trial. “Nothing is true about that.”
Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they die.
Whatever the outcome Thursday, both defendants face a second trial that is due to start by year’s end, this time on charges of genocide. That trial is expected to take years to complete.
Suon Mom, 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer era, said she is keen to see justice finally served, even if it is generations late.
“My anger remains in my heart,” she said. “I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink ... Hopefully the court will sentence the two leaders to life in prison.
Some say the money that financed the trial should have been spent on helping survivors instead, or on the impoverished country’s infrastructure.
Chea Chhunleng, a 23-year-old business student, said he was not opposed to harsh sentences for the two leaders, but said the trial could not change the past.
It “can only provide justice ... only the word justice. That is all,” he said. -AP