October 6, 2022

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An international tribunal has convened in Cambodia to try the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutalities that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. He concludes his work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of the crimes.

In what was to be its final session, the UN-backed tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison, the sentence was reaffirmed on Thursday.

He appeared in court Thursday wearing a white windbreaker, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a face mask and listening to the proceedings through headphones. Seven judges were present.

Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense at trial, denied that he had any real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge imposed a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing Cambodians to die from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care. . He was ousted from power in 1979 by the invasion of the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.

“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his closing statement to the court last year. “I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing that I am alone in front of you. I am being judged symbolically, not based on my actual actions as an individual.”

In his appeal, he stated that the court made errors in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly, objecting to more than 1,800 points.

But the court noted Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case as presented in court. He rejected almost all of Khieu Samphan’s arguments, admitting error and reversing his decision on one minor point. The court said it found the vast majority of Khieu Samphan’s arguments “unfounded” and that many were “alternative interpretations of the evidence”.

The court announced that its verdict of several hundred pages would be official when it was published, and ordered that Khieu Samphan be returned to the specially built prison where he is being held. He was arrested in 2007.

Thursday’s decision makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and already serving another life sentence for a 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to forced displacement and mass disappearances.

His co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader and chief ideologue, was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.

The tribunal’s only other verdict was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was the commander of Tuol Sleng prison, where some 16,000 people were tortured before being taken to be killed. In 2010, Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder and torture, and died in 2020 at the age of 77 while serving a life sentence.

The real leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72, while the remnants of his movement fought their last battles in the guerrilla war they launched after losing power.

The trials of the only other two defendants have not been completed. Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and his wife, former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, was declared incompetent due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders, avoided prosecution because of divisions among the tribunal’s lawyers.

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years monitoring the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the tribunal had been successful in providing a level of accountability.

“The amount of time, money and effort that goes into achieving this rather limited goal can be disproportionate to the goal,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.

But she praised the trials “in a country where the atrocities took place and where people could pay a certain level of attention and gather information about what was going on in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or elsewhere.” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.

The legacy of the tribunal goes beyond individual convictions, said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and served as head of investigations for the tribunal’s prosecutor’s office from 2006 to 2012.

“The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge and showed that, while it may take time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” he said.

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