Phnom Penh, Cambodia – An international tribunal has convened in Cambodia to judge atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. She finished her job Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes.
At its last session, the court, with UN assistance, 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 in 2018 of genocide and crimes against humanity. and war crimes and life imprisonment, a sentence that was reaffirmed Thursday.
He appeared in court Thursday in a white windbreaker, sat in a wheelchair, wears a face mask and listened to the proceedings on a pair of headphones. Seven judges attended.
Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state, but in his defense of the trial, he denied having real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge carried out a reign of terror to establish a utopian farming community, causing Cambodians to die from execution, starvation, and inadequate medical care. He was ousted from power in 1979 by invading the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.
“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in the final appeal statement to the court last year. “I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die when I see that I am alone before you. I am judged symbolically and not by my actual actions as an individual.”
In his appeal, he alleged that the court made errors in legal process and interpretation and acted unfairly, objections to more than 1,800 points.
But the court noted Thursday that his appeal did not directly question the facts of the case as presented in court. She rejected almost all of the arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, admitting error and retracting her judgment on one minor point. The court said it found that the vast majority of Khieu Samphan’s arguments were “unfounded,” and that many of them were “alternative interpretations of the evidence.”
The court declared that its verdict of several hundred pages would be official when published, and ordered the return of Khieu Samphan to the specially constructed prison where he was held. He was arrested in 2007.
Thursday’s ruling makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and is already serving another life sentence for being convicted in 2014 of crimes against humanity linked to the forced transfers and disappearances of large numbers of people.
The other accused Nun Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s second leader and chief ideologist, was convicted twice and sentenced to the same life imprisonment. Non Chea passed away in 2019 at the age of 93.
The court’s only other conviction was that of Kaeng Jiek Eve, also known as Dutch, who was the commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, where nearly 16,000 people were tortured before being led to death. Deutch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture and died in 2020 at the age of 77 while serving a life sentence.
The real Khmer Rouge president, Pol Pot, has escaped justice. He died in the bush in 1998 at the age of 72, while the remnants of his movement were fighting its last battles in the guerrilla war that it launched after losing power.
Only the trials of the other defendants were not completed. The former foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sari, died in 2013, his wife, former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial for dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.
Four other suspects, middle-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped trial due to a split among the court’s judges.
Heather Ryan, who has spent 15 years pursuing the Open Society Justice Initiative court, said the court has succeeded in providing a certain level of accountability.
“The amount of time, money, and effort that went into reaching this limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.
But she praised the conduct of the trials “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay much more attention and gather information about what was happening in court than if the court was in The Hague or elsewhere.” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.
The court’s legacy goes beyond individual convictions, said Craig Echison, who has studied and written on the Khmer Rouge, and was the head of investigations for the prosecution’s office at the court from 2006 to 2012.
“The court has successfully attacked the Khmer Rouge’s longstanding impunity, showing that although it may take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” he said.