Two Khmer Rouge leaders have been found guilty of genocide, around 40 years after millions of people died under Pol Pot’s regime.
Pol Pot’s deputy Nuon Chea, 92, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 87, were sentenced to life imprisonment in the UN-backed tribunal for the genocide committed between 1977 and 1979.
It was estimated that two million people from Cham Muslim and ethnic Vietnamese backgrounds died from overwork, starvation and mass executions under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reign.
“I think this verdict is a very timely and very necessary,” said prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian. “The fact that these crimes happened 40 years ago in no way diminishes the impact of this verdict for those who were affected by the crimes, people whose parents were tortured and killed.”
The tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was established in 2006 with Cambodian and international judges. It has so far convicted three high-ranking Khmer Rouge members and started investigations on four other cadres, all at the cost of US$300 million.
Koumjian said “he wished things had gone faster and that more people had been prosecuted”, while Nuon Chea’s lawyer Victor Koppe questioned the necessity of the courts at all. “In 10 or 20 years from now, when the dust has settled, people will look back on this as a complete waste of time and energy and resources,” said Koppe.
But David Scheffer, the UN secretary general’s special expert to the Khmer Rouge trials said the significance of the verdict could not be minimised. “This is comparable, in Cambodia, to the Nuremberg judgment after world war two,” Scheffer told the Guardian. “That is worth the money and effort.”
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia which has helped the tribunal with evidence said the sentence will “provide a sense of closure to a horrible chapter in Cambodian history”, “affirm the collective humanity of the victims and give recognition to the horrible suffering”.