PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A court Thursday found the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which brutalized Cambodia in the 1970s, guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison.
The chief judge, Nil Nonn, said the court found that there had been a “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Cambodia” and that the two men had been part of a “joint criminal enterprise” that bore responsibility. They were convicted of murder and extermination, among other crimes.
More than 1.7 million people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
The proceedings of the tribunal, a joint effort of the Cambodian government and the United Nations, have been criticized for covering only a sliver of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. The judgments against the two men, Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were the first handed down against the Khmer Rouge leadership, although a lower-ranking official who ran a notorious prison for the regime in Phnom Penh was convicted in 2010. Both defendants will appeal, their lawyers said.
The case against the two has been divided into stages. The trial that culminated Thursday, in a courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has focused largely on the evacuation of urban centers, part of the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous attempt to establish an agrarian utopia. Initial hearings have begun for the second trial, which includes charges of genocide.
Witnesses have given harrowing testimony of being forced out of their homes and into the countryside by Khmer Rouge soldiers, being denied medical care and seeing executions and other atrocities. The evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 portended the social fragmentation that would follow over the next three years and eight months of Khmer Rouge rule. Families were separated, money was abolished, and the population was forced into a giant, failed campaign of collectivized labor.
“The heart of the Khmer Rouge crimes was the complete disregard of human costs of their revolution,” said former U.S. diplomat David Chandler, who served in Cambodia and is a leading historian on the Khmer Rouge atrocities. “Their vision was completely flawed and unhitched to reality.”
The limited scope of the trial and verdict, which dealt only with the forced evacuations and one site where mass executions occurred, has frustrated many observers and victims, and even the staunchest supporters of the trial, which began in 2011, have been ambivalent about the process. “We knew that the court would not resolve everything,” said Youk Chhang, founder of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an organization that has amassed a trove of documents and photographs from the Khmer Rouge era. “But it was important to have the proceedings.”
Although hearings have begun for the second trial, it remains an open question how far the proceedings will go, given the age and frailty of the defendants. Both men have been hospitalized several times over the past three years, leading to multiple delays.
Another defendant, Ieng Sary, the foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge government, died in 2013, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was also a minister, was declared mentally unfit for trial. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, died in northwestern Cambodia in 1998.Asia - Southeast Asia - Cambodia - Nuon Chea - Khieu Samphan - Ieng Sary - Ieng Thirith - Phnom Penh