PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A special Cambodian court on Wednesday upheld the life sentences for the two most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people. The court said the massive scale of the crimes showed the two men's complete lack of consideration for the lives of the Cambodians.
The Supreme Court Chamber said the 2014 verdict by a U.N.-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal was "appropriate" given the gravity of the crimes and roles of the two — Khieu Samphan, the 85-year-old Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, the 90-year-old right-hand man to the communist group's late leader Pol Pot.
"It is a historic day for Cambodia. For the first time in 41 years someone in the national leadership has been held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime," said tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen.
The two — who were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution — sat impassively as the lengthy verdict was read out. They were detained in 2007 and started serving their sentences in 2014 inside the Khmer Rouge tribunal's facility, where conditions are much better than ordinary Cambodian prison. They have access to radio and television.
About 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from starvation, disease and execution due to the extremist policies of the communist Khmer Rouge when they held power from 1975 to 1979.
"I waited for this moment for 40 years. It has now arrived," said Seak Ny, a 64-year-old woman whose husband died of starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime. She said the Khmer Rouge also killed her older brother and his five children when they found out he was a former soldier in the government they ousted.
"Today I am happy because these people have received justice," she said, adding that she came to the tribunal to see the faces of the Khmer Rouge leaders.
The court said that the gravity of the crimes should be reflected in the sentences.
Kong Srim, president of the Supreme Court Chamber, said that the "massive scale of the crimes" showed a complete lack of consideration for the "ultimate fate of the Cambodian population, especially the most vulnerable group."
In their appeals, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea said they were unfairly being singled out while the Cambodian government sought to block the tribunal from trying other suspects. They also alleged a slew of legal and factual errors as well as biases by the judges.
Despite upholding the sentences, the court reversed several aspects of the convictions. It found that the evidence was insufficient to convict the men for crimes against humanity connected to the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh and a separate population transfer, as well as a massacre of soldiers loyal to the government ousted by the Khmer Rouge.
The two defendants are still on trial in a second case where they are facing charges of genocide against ethnic minorities and foreigners, and implementing policies of rape and forced marriages.
Originally all the charges were to have been part of one trial, but fears that they would die before proceedings could finish led to their case being broken into two parts, known as Case 002/01 and 002/02.
Their two co-defendants, Ieng Sary, the third-ranking Khmer Rouge leader and its foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, died during the first phase of their trial.
There have been charges made against other suspects in what are known as Cases 003 and 004, but they remain in limbo because of a lack of cooperation from Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
Hun Sen has threatened to shut down the tribunal, which was set up in 2006, if further cases are pursued. He has repeatedly said that if the tribunal targets more defendants, it could incite former Khmer Rouge members to start a civil war. Few people share his belief, since the Khmer Rouge became a spent force almost two decades ago.
Hun Sen himself was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People's Party share similar backgrounds. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.
The tribunal's operations have been complicated by its unusual hybrid nature, which pairs international and Cambodian jurists and works under complicated rules that have slowed progress.