PHNOM PENH, Sept 22: The international court convened in Cambodia to judge the Khmer Rouge for its brutal 1970s rule ended its work on Thursday after spending USD 337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes after the regime cause the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.
In its final session, the UN-assisted tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79.
It reaffirmed the life sentence he received after being convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Busloads of ordinary Cambodians turned up to watch the final proceedings of a tribunal that had sought to bring justice, accountability and explanations for the crimes.
Many of those attending Thursday’s session lived through the Khmer Rouge terror, including survivors Bou Meng and Chum Mey, who had given evidence at the tribunal over the years.
Khieu Samphan, sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a white windbreaker and a face mask, listened to the proceedings on headphones.
He was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his trial defence, 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 neighbouring 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.”
His appeal 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 on 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 count.
The court said it found the vast majority of Khieu Samphan’s arguments “unfounded,” and that many were “alternative interpretations of the evidence.”
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.
The court ordered that Khieu Samphan, who was arrested in 2007, be returned to the specially constructed jail where he has been kept.
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. (AP)