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Cambodia tribunal rejects appeal by Khmer Rouge leader as it ends work

The international court upheld the genocide conviction of Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of a regime that caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s.
Image: Khieu Samphan
Former head of state for the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, in a courtroom during a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Sept. 22, 2022.Nhet Sok Heng / Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia via AP
/ Source: Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An international court convened in Cambodia to judge the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge regime that caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. It ends its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes.

In what was set to be its final session, the U.N.-assisted 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 in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and given life in prison, a sentence reaffirmed Thursday.

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

Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his trial defense, denied having real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge carried out a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing Cambodians’ deaths from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care. It was ousted from power in 1979 by an invasion from neighboring communist state Vietnam.

“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his final statement of appeal 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 judged symbolically rather than by my actual deeds as an individual.”

Image: Khieu Samphan
Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan explains that the military forces of the Khmer Rouge have halted the Vietnamese military advance into Cambodia, Cardamom Mountains, on Feb. 12, 1981.Alex Bowie / Getty Images

In his appeal, he alleged the court made errors in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly, making 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. It rejected almost all arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, acknowledging an error and reversing its ruling 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 judgment of several hundred pages would be official when it is published, and ordered that Khieu Samphan be returned to the specially constructed jail where he has been kept. He was arrested in 2007.

Thursday’s ruling makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 and already serving another life sentence for his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity connected with forced transfers and disappearances of masses of people.

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

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

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

The trials of the only other two defendants were not completed. The former foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary, died in 2013, and his wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, middle-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution because of a split among the tribunal’s jurists.

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years following the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the court was successful in providing some level of accountability.

“The amount of time and money and effort that’s expended to get to this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.

But she praised having the trials “in the country where the atrocities occurred and where people were able to pay a level of attention and gather information about what was happening in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or some other place.” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.

The tribunal’s legacy goes beyond the individual convictions, said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and was chief of investigations for the office of the prosecution at the tribunal from 2006 to 2012.

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