PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – An international court convened in Cambodia to try the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. It concluded its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict only three people.
In what was scheduled to be its final session, the UN-aid tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Sampan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, a crime against humanity. and war crimes and given life in prison, a sentence reinstated on Thursday.
He appeared in court Thursday in a white windbreaker, sitting in a wheelchair wearing a mask and listening to the proceedings through a pair of headphones. Seven judges were present.
Khieu Sampan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense of justice, Cambodians died of executions, starvation and deprivation while the Khmer Rouge imposed a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society. Health care. It 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 Sampan said in his final statement of appeal to the court last year. “I will die remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than my actual actions as a person.”
In his appeal, he alleged that the court erred in legal process and interpretation and acted unfairly by objecting to more than 1,800 points.
But the court noted on Thursday that its appeal did not directly question the veracity of the case presented to the court. It rejected almost all the arguments raised by Khieu Sampan, admitted an error and reversed its judgment on one minor point. The court said it found the bulk of Khieu Sampan’s arguments to be “baseless” and many to be “alternative interpretations of the evidence”.
The court announced that its hundreds of pages of judgment would be formalized after publication and ordered Khieu Sampan to be returned to the specially constructed prison where he is being held. He was arrested in 2007.
Thursday’s ruling makes little practical difference. Khiu Sampan is 91 years old and already serving another life sentence for his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity linked to forced displacement and 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 only other convict at the tribunal was Kaing Guek Ew, also known as Dutch, who was the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where some 16,000 people were tortured before being taken to be killed. Dutch 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 head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped prosecution. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72 while the remnants of his movement were fighting their last battle in a guerrilla war that began after he lost power.
The trial of the remaining two accused has not ended. The Khmer Rouge’s former foreign minister, Yeng Sary, died in 2013, and his wife, former social affairs minister Yeng Thirith, was deemed incompetent to stand trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.
Four other suspects, mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among the tribunal’s judges.
Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years following the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the court had succeeded in providing some level of accountability.
“The amount of time and money and effort expended to reach this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,” he said in a video interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado.
But he praised the trial “in the country where the atrocity happened and where people were able to pay a 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 anywhere else.” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.
The tribunal’s legacy goes beyond personal convictions, said Craig Acheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and headed the Office of the Prosecution’s investigation into the tribunal from 2006 to 2012.
“The court has successfully attacked the longstanding impunity of the Khmer Rouge and shown that although it may take a long time, the law can catch criminals against humanity,” he said.