Ex-Khmer Rouge Leader Seeks To Overturn Genocide Conviction

On August 16th, Khieu Samphan, former president of the Khmer Rouge, entered an appeal to reverse his conviction of genocide and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Samphan’s defense team argued that when he was convicted, Samphan was not provided enough time to prepare a defense, and thus his crimes should be nullified. Regardless of his appeal and the technical merits of the case, there is little doubt that Samphan is guilty of the crimes he is accused of, given his leadership and active role in the Communist Party of Kampuchea (C.P.K.). According to the book Seven Candidates for Prosecution, Samphan “publicly endorsed taking measures against the enemies of the revolution in a way that suggests knowledge and support of the policy of executing purported enemy agents.”

During the late 1960s, the North Vietnamese army began sending troops into the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the United States helped the anti-communist government of Lon Nol stage a coup to fight against the North Vietnamese-supported Khmer Rouge. Despite a massive bombing campaign supported by the U.S., the Khmer Rouge ousted the Lon Nol government and replaced it with its own communist regime called Democratic Kampuchea. This new authority sought to transform Cambodia into a rural agrarian society based on rigid Marxism, and brought about some of the most destructive and violent forms of totalitarian communism during the Cold War.

After taking power, the C.P.K. began “evacuating” city dwellers to the countryside and forcing them to work in agriculture, while torturing and killing civilians who did not comply. Famine spread throughout Cambodia due to inefficient distribution policies, and occasionally the deliberate deprivation of food. The C.P.K. destroyed countless religious and historical artifacts and sites and attempted to erase any cultural connection to Cambodian society before the revolution. All forms of “elitism” or “individualism” – even foraging for food during the famine – were punishable by death. During this period, close to two million Cambodians died of exhaustion, starvation, and torture from the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge met its fate in 1979. Fearing the Vietnamese communists were planning to form an Indochinese federation, the C.P.K. attacked Vietnam. They overestimated their own strength, and the Vietnamese forces routed them within weeks. On top of that, the Vietnamese pushed into Cambodia and forced the Khmer Rouge fighters into the jungle. The C.P.K. maintained an insurgency for roughly twenty years, but disintegrated in the late 1990s due to constant internal fighting. It officially surrendered to the Cambodian government in 1999.

Despite all their atrocities, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were welcomed back to the country by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge leader himself. In one case, Sen granted amnesty to Ieng Sary, a high ranking C.P.K. leader, and personally hosted two other party leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, asking Cambodians to “dig a hole and bury the past.” Despite Sen’s persistent interference, Cambodian leadership requested that the United Nations intervene. Over the course of the next decade, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (E.C.C.C.) arrested former leaders of the C.P.K. and put them on trial. In 2018, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the last survivors of the C.P.K. inner circle, were convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

It is vital that the tribunal uphold its verdict against Samphan and deny his appeal. Samphan is the last living high-ranking party member, and he must be held accountable for the horrible crimes and the acts committed by his regime. The verdict must also be upheld to set a precedent for crimes against humanity. Holding Samphan accountable for his role in the Cambodian genocide may act as a deterrent by showing that the United Nations will hold totalitarian leaders accountable for genocide and crimes against humanity.