The international court convened in Cambodia to judge the Khmer Rouge for its brutal 1970s rule ended its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes after the regime caused 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 to 1979. 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.
Khieu Samphan listened to the proceedings on headphones. He was the group's nominal head of state but, in his trial defense, 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 neighboring 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 am judged symbolically rather than by my actual deeds as an individual." The court rejected almost all of his arguments but reversed its ruling on one minor count.
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. Co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's No. 2 leader and chief ideologist, was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. He 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 the Tuol Sleng prison, where roughly 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch 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.
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With its active work done, experts are pondering the legacy of the tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. "The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge, and showed that though it might take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity," said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and was chief of investigations for the office of the prosecution at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012. "The tribunal also created an extraordinary record of those crimes, comprising documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, that will educate Cambodia's youth about the history of their country, and that will deeply frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge."