Khmer Rouge leaders jailed for crimes against humanity

Aug 7, 2014

Pol Pot's henchmen found guilty in Cambodia, but call the allegations 'fairy tales'

Mark Peters/ECCC via Getty Images

Two former Khmer Rouge leaders have been found guilty of crimes against humanity by a Cambodian court and sentenced to life in prison.

Nuon Chea, who was deputy to the infamous Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, his head of state, are the first senior members of the organisation, which terrorised Cambodia in the late 1970s, to be punished for their crimes. 

The two men, both in their eighties and in ill-health, have denied any wrongdoing during the Khmer Rouge's bloody five-year rule, the BBC reports. They still face separate charges of genocide.

The regime orchestrated the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s which resulted in the death of up to two million people.

While Khieu Samphan admits that mass killings took place under the Khmer Rouge, he denies personal responsibility, calling the charges "fairy tales". He places the blame solely on regime leader Pol Pot.

Victims, campaigners and international observers have criticised the time it has taken to bring the top leaders trial, as well as the cost. The tribunal has spent more than $200m, but has only secured one conviction, that of prison director Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, who received a life sentence in 2011, The Guardian reports. 

Khmer Rouge survivor Nou Saota said: "I feel so happy and relieved. A huge burden has been lifted off me."

But one Cambodian said the ruling would not erase the past. It "can only provide justice... only the word justice", said Chea Chhunleng. "That is all."

What was the regime?

Founded by a group of former exchange students, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) – better known by its French colloquial name, the Khmer Rouge began as a conventional Marxist movement. But when a former technology student called Pol Pot became the party's leader in 1962, it moved towards an extreme Maoist ideology that glorified rural peasantry and insisted on the subjugation of the individual to the 'Angka', or 'Organisation'. 

How did the Khmer Rouge come to power?

During the Vietnam War – under pressure from its Chinese and North Vietnamese neighbours – Cambodia allowed the communist Viet Cong to set up bases on its territory. As punishment, America launched a massive, secret bombing campaign against Cambodia. During one three-month period in 1973, American B-52s dropped more bombs on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan in the whole of the Second World War – the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. Between 1969 and 1973, American bombs killed at least 150,000 Cambodians. The effect was to destabilise the country and provoke a five-year civil war, which only ended in 1975, when 68,000 black-clad Khmer Rouge guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh. 

Did they have popular support?

Initially people greeted the Khmer Rouge with joy, hoping they might bring peace. But within days, the new regime set about constructing its peasant utopia – by force. 'Year Zero' was declared. Thousands of people were driven out of cities and forced to work on collective farms. Private property, currency and religion were abolished. The national library was turned into a pig pen, and ancient Buddhist parchments were used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to roll cigarettes. In an effort to destroy family ties, children were separated from their parents and raised in collective nurseries. Strangers were forced to marry each other in mass ceremonies.

How bloody was the regime?

In four years of Khmer Rouge rule, between 1.7 million and 2.2 million Cambodians died – out of a population of eight million. Most were killed by exhaustion and starvation on collective farms. But at least 500,000 people were deliberately murdered by the paranoid regime. Having an education, speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses or using a toothbrush could mark you out as a capitalist traitor. "Angka has as many eyes as a pine-apple," warned posters. "Angka sees everything you do." Suspects were tortured, made to "confess" and beaten to death because bullets were scarce. "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss," was the regime's motto.

How was the regime toppled?

The Khmer Rouge turned against communist Vietnam and began cross-border raids in the late 1970s. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, drove out the regime with the help of a Khmer Rouge defector, Hun Sen, and installed its own government. Pol Pot and his comrades fled into the jungle bordering Thailand; but they were not yet finished. Cold War America and the West refused to recognise communist Vietnam's government in Phnom Penh, and gave secret support to the Khmer Rouge's guerrilla campaign against the new regime.

When did the Khmer Rouge admit defeat?

After 1993, when UN-backed elections established a new coalition government headed by Hun Sen, the Khmer Rouge lost its international backers. Its power base dwindled away, and in 1997 it agreed to lay down arms. That same year, the party – now eager to disassociate itself from past crimes – arrested Pol Pot and charged him with treason. The former leader died in their custody in 1998, still insisting: "My conscience is clear."

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