Speaking in front of hundreds of visitors, Khmer Rouge Tribunal chamber judge Nil Nonn announced the long-awaited verdict today in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
Nuon Chea, the “loyal right-hand man” of Democratic Kampuchea’s leader Pol Pot, was found guilty of genocide of both the ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim Cham minorities. Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese, but – due to a lack of effective command – not of the Cham.
The Cham were prohibited from any religious practice, forced to eat pork and wear the same dress and haircuts as the Khmer people, the judge said. Those who resisted would be arrested and often killed.
While unable to determine a definite number of victims, he said the Cham were killed on “a massive scale”.
Belonging to the ethnic Vietnamese group carried a similar fate during the regime. “All Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who entered S-21 were labelled as spies and considered enemies,” Nonn said about the prison in the capital, which is also known as Tuol Sleng. “The fate of these prisoners was a foregone conclusion as they were all ultimately subject to execution.”
Vietnamese were subject to persecution, torture, and killing outside the notorious high-level prison as well.
The guilty verdict comes as no surprise to Victor Koppe, the international defence lawyer for Chea, who told Southeast Asia Globe before the announcement of the verdict that he only expected “maybe a few small acquittals.”
He and his team would, Koppe said, not accept the conviction: “Everything that can be appealed will be appealed,” he said.
Anta Guissé, defence council for Samphan, also expressed her disappointment with the judgment and said her team would appeal the decision.
Samphan and Nuon were also convicted of crimes against humanity in the form of murder, extermination, torture, religious persecution, enslavement, and a host of other crimes.
And aside from delivering a first-time genocide verdict, it is also the first time the court has found someone guilty of forced marriage.
“The evidence put before the Chamber clearly demonstrates a practice during the Democratic Kampuchea regime that was far from reflective of traditional Khmer wedding tradition,” Nonn said on passing the judgement.
“Families of future spouses were not involved at all in the negotiation, communities were not included, tradition was absent from wedding ceremonies, and individuals agreed to get married for fear of being punished by the party,” the judge added.
As Chea and Samphan have been sentenced to life imprisonment in a previous trial, the chamber merged the two sentences to one life imprisonment.
In a press conference after the verdict, national lead-prosecutor Chea Leang said that although the two accused had been sentenced, the trial was not done yet.
“If the defence lawyers appeal to the supreme court chamber, the proceeding will continue… But it is not wise to actually forecast how much time it needs for the appeal process,” she said.
The appeal proceedings in Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan’s previous case lasted about two years.
When asked about the slow process, which has been a significant criticism of the court, international lead co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian acknowledged the issue.
“I certainly wish the tribunal would move faster… These cases are incredible complicated and complex… [but] I recognise there is a need to speed things up,” he said in a phone call to Southeast Asia Globe.
On the verdict, he said, “I do feel a great sense of satisfaction… It’s an important day for international jurisdiction and Cambodia.”
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson echoed his sentiments in a statement, saying: “While ‘never again’ echoed frequently in the halls of the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal over the years, the fact is only today did that historic pledge become a final reality.”