Phnom Penh: Two senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been found guilty of genocide and forced marriage during the brutal regime which claimed the lives of 1.7 million people, an international tribunal has found in a historic decision handed down in Phnom Penh on Friday.
Two top leaders of the murderous regime, “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 92, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 87, were found guilty of a long list of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Nuon Chea, who was the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, at the hearing where he was found guilty.Credit:AP
Although the widespread slaughter that rent Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is often called a “genocide” – known as the “crime of all crimes” – the loaded charge carries a narrow legal definition.
In the case of the Khmer Rouge, the charge of genocide means acts committed with the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group. It was levelled against Chea and Samphan for the mass murder of Cham Muslim and Vietnamese people, rather than the broader Cambodian population.
While Chea was found guilty of genocide against both groups, Samphan was found not guilty of genocide against the Cham people.
Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state in court.Credit:AP
Their new life sentences will be merged with the life-long terms they are already serving for crimes they were found guilty of in a previous trial.
The pair were found guilty of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution based on political and on religious grounds, and other inhumane acts including forced marriage and rape.
International prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian heralded the verdict as an “important” decision and said justice had been done.
But Chea’s defence lawyer, Victor Koppe, said bias against his client had plagued the court since the beginning and Friday’s result was “almost like there hasn’t been a trial”.
“It’s by far the biggest farce in the history of international criminal law,” Koppe said.
“He will appeal.”
The $300 million Khmer Rouge trials have been criticised for being too lengthy and expensive.
Two of Chea and Samphan’s co-defendants, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, died before their cases could be tried.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge movement, died in 1998 on the eve of being handed over by his former Communist cadres to face justice before an international tribunal.
Cambodian Buddhist monks wait in queue to enter the courtroom before the hearings against two former Khmer Rouge senior leaders.Credit:AP
The question of forced marriage was another flashpoint in the second trial against Chea and Samphan.
Theresa de Langis, an academic who has long fought for gender-based crimes to be tried in Cambodia, said the verdict must be especially gratifying for survivors of the regime who came forward.
“[They] raised awareness on a sharp learning curve for the widespread use of forced marriages as a means of control in genocidal contexts and mass atrocity,” she said.
“Their stories are now part of the official history, the long lasting trauma, and the strength of Cambodians to recover.”
A Cambodian boy stands in front of human skulls discovered 25 km south of Phnom Penh in 1995. The mass grave contains the remains of about 2000 victims of the Khmer Rouge.Credit:AP
“After so many years to come to this verdict is a great step toward ending impunity for conflict affected sexual crimes, against both men and women,” she said.
Australian-based academic Peg LeVine, who testified as an expert during the trial, said while she welcomed the genocide conviction as it could widen the scope to include indigenous peoples globally, including Aboriginal Australians, she took issue with the term “forced marriage”.
“I am left doubting there was ever a scholarly and considered review of the biased research samples and driving agendas by white feminists and civil party legal teams that drove this term so fiercely into the media – as a mantra set in stone,” she said.
She said crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in relation to marriages should instead have been considered under the umbrella crime of "ritualcide" – a term she coined in her research.
“By harming the traditional wedding sequence of rituals, the Khmer Rouge were guilty of ‘ritualcide’, and this neglect crossed over into traditional birth, protective health, and death rites.”
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