Khmer Rouge: Cambodia court to rule on genocide appeal of last surviving leader

Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal for the Khmer Rouge will issue its final verdict on Thursday, when it rules on an appeal by the regime’s last surviving leader, more than 40 years since Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime fell.

The tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), will issue its verdict on an appeal by Khieu Samphan, 91, on Thursday morning. Khieu Samphan, who was a former head of state, was found guilty of genocide of Vietnamese in 2018.

An estimated 1.7 million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge through a combination of mass executions, starvation and labour camps, in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. By the time the regime was ousted in 1979, about 25% of Cambodia’s population had died.

An estimated 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese, as well as 100,000 to 500,000 Cham Muslims were among those killed.

The court, which will now conclude its work, has provided a space for national healing and as well as justice, but it has also been criticised for its slowness, cost and its vulnerability to interference from the government of Hun Sen.

The court, which was formed in 1997 and includes both Cambodian and international judges, has cost more than $330m.

It has led to three convictions, including Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who was head of the notorious S-21 prison.

Key perpetrators have died before they could face justice, including “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and other crimes in 2018 alongside Nuon Chea.

The judgement at the time emphasised that Khieu Samphan “encouraged, incited and legitimised” the criminal policies that lead to the deaths of civilians “on a massive scale”, including the millions forced into labour camps to build dams and bridges and the mass extermination of Vietnamese. Buddhist monks were forcibly defrocked while Muslims were forced to eat pork.

The pair were already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity over the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975, when the city’s residents were taken to rural labour camps where they faced hard labour, starvation and disease.

Nuon Chea died in 2019.

Khieu Samphan’s lawyers have accused the tribunal of taking a “selective approach” to testimony and of using legal criteria that he could not have known when the alleged crimes took place more than 40 years ago.

Kaing Guek Eav, who ran the S-21 prison where around 18,000 people were tortured and murdered, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010. He died in 2020.

AFP contributed to this report