For the very first time, two senior leaders of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia have been convicted of genocide. Deputy leader Nuon Chea, 92, and Head of State Khieu Samphan, 87, have been given life sentences on top of the life sentences they are already serving for crimes against humanity. Chea was found guilty of genocide for attempting to wipe out Cham Muslims, and Samphan was found guilty of genocide against ethnic Vietnamese communities. During the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power from 1975 to 1979, around 25% of Cambodia’s population had died, until the regime was ousted by Vietnamese troops and Cambodian protesters.
The pair are two of only three people who have been convicted by E.C.C.C., the U.N.-backed tribunal, which has faced criticism for spending over nine years and more than $300 million to prosecute leaders of Khmer Rouge, and only convicting three people for the group’s heinous actions. Most of those responsible for the killings, including the leader of Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died before they could be tried. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former mid-level member of the Khmer Rouge himself, has opposed the tribunal starting new trials, saying that people want to move on and claiming that further prosecutions could lead to violence. However, Alexander Hinton, director of the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, said: “Justice is not perfect. But it’s better than no justice. And what’s the alternative? Impunity for mass murder.”
Under the leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist movement founded by French-educated individuals, sought to create a self-reliant, agrarian society forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside, whilst torturing and killing all those perceived to be enemies including intellectuals, minorities, former government officials and their families. Pol Pot was sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home in 1997, years after his government was overthrown. However less than a year later he had died, denying millions of people the chance to bring him to justice. In 2009, the U.N. then helped to establish the tribunal to try surviving leaders.
Further criticisms of the tribunal include political interference, as the definition of genocide under international law doesn’t fit the larger scale killings of the Cambodian population, and the U.N.’s wording stated that senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for the atrocities could be targeted for prosecution only. Critics, including Theary Seng, whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, feel that the tribunal has not accomplished the established goals of reconciliation, symbolic justice or combating immunity from punishment.
Despite the criticisms of the tribunal, victims who have waited for over 40 years have finally received a symbol of justice. The 72-year-old Cham Muslim man, Los Sat, who lost many family members, said: “They brought suffering to my relatives, I am really satisfied with the sentences.” The court’s decision has triggered discussions in Cambodia about one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century and most importantly, has given accountability of the crimes to some of the major figures in the Khmer Rouge regime. The tribunal itself is subject to resistance, including from the Prime Minister Hun Sen, who worries that further cases could push the country into civil war. However, the process has been followed by the rule of law and has delivered results which will be of most importance to many Cambodians seeking justice. In the future, if the tribunal continues to operate, which is not certain to happen due to opposition from the prime minister, what can be taken from the judgements is the fitting life sentences given to those involved in the terrible regime. This proper following of the case through the court can also act as a precedent for the other four cases against Khmer Rouge members.
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