Four decades after the Khmer Rouge came to power, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on Wednesday became the first senior regime leaders to have been handed a final guilty verdict for their responsibility for crimes committed during Pol Pot’s brutal rule over Cambodia.
After being found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s Trial Chamber in August 2014, both defense teams filed lengthy appeals and the Khmer Rouge leaders were still legally presumed innocent until a verdict was reached by the Supreme Court Chamber.
Khieu Samphan, left, and Nuon Chea attend a hearing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh in 2013. (ECCC)Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, were seeking a reversal of the judgment and a complete acquittal. Khieu Samphan also requested a reduction in his sentence if his appeal against the judgment was rejected.
Reading out the final verdict on Wednesday morning, Kong Srim, president of the Supreme Court Chamber, said numerous flaws had been found in the Trial Chamber’s decision and reversed a number of the convictions. But many of the convictions were upheld, and Judge Srim said that the appeals were not compelling enough to overturn the life sentences handed down against the Khmer Rouge leaders.
Calling Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to the dock, he said the Supreme Court Chamber “affirms the sentence of life imprisonment of the Trial Chamber on both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan”
The chamber, he said, “grants in part and dismisses in part Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan’s appeals.”
Judge Srim said the Trial Chamber erred in its finding that the crime of extermination was committed during the forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people from Phnom Penh as there was no clear evidence of direct intent.
However, he said the Supreme Court found that the evacuation amounted to a crime against humanity as it caused “serious mental and physical suffering.”
Ruling on another charge related to the killing of Lon Nol soldiers at the Tuol Po Chrey execution site, Judge Srim said the Trial Chamber had failed to find direct criminal responsibility on the part of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
“The accused cannot be held criminally liable for the crimes against humanity that were committed at Tuol Po Chrey,” Judge Srim said.
Defense lawyers accused the Trial Chamber—composed of both foreign and Cambodian judges—of being biased and not allowing their clients a fair trial due to their predisposed beliefs about the accused.
This resulted in Nuon Chea’s defense team staging a walkout during an appeal hearing last year with their client claiming in a rare address that the “tribunal was not at all interested in exploring the truth.”
Nuon Chea’s lead international lawyer, Dutch attorney Victor Koppe, has repeatedly slammed the court for alleged political interference by the Cambodian government. He has also highlighted the tribunal’s failure to summon National Assembly President Heng Samrin, who was a mid-ranking soldier in the Khmer Rouge, along with other current government leaders who fought for the regime before defecting.
Judge Srim said on Wednesday that while the decision not to call Mr. Samrin to testify was “unreasonable,” it did not undermine the fairness of the Trial Chamber’s ruling.
Many were also dismayed by the Trial Chamber’s decision in 2011 to split the trial of surviving regime leaders into smaller segments, meaning the first phase focused mainly on the evacuation of Phnom Penh, leaving most of the regime’s worst atrocities for the second phase.
In a video uploaded to the court’s website last week, Mr. Koppe branded the appeal “irrelevant” due to the Supreme Court Chamber also failing to call Mr. Samrin to testify and it’s refusal to admit video evidence from filmmaker Rob Lemkin, who co-directed the documentary “Enemies of the People,” which includes extensive interviews with Nuon Chea.
Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were charged with crimes against humanity in 2007 after retiring to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin following the complete collapse of the guerilla resistance in the late 1990s.
Both are currently facing further charges—including genocide—in the second phase of Case 002. A verdict in that trial is expected late next year.
wright@cambodiadaily.com, meyn@cambodiadaily.com
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