Two of the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders on Friday were found guilty of genocide at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Nuon Chea, 92, who was the regime's chief ideologist and known as “Brother Number Two”, was found guilty of genocide relating to crimes committed against Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese by the United Nations-backed court.
Khieu Samphan, 87, the former head of state, was found guilty of genocide in relation to the killings of ethnic Vietnamese, but was found not guilty over the killings of the Cham Muslims, the Trial Chamber said.
The landmark ruling is the first time that a court has found that genocide was committed by the regime.
Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were also found guilty of crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture and persecution, as well as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
They were sentenced to life in prison.
“Today, justice has been served,” the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares told reporters after the judgment.
“While justice has triumphed today, our thoughts are with the victims of the unspeakable crimes that have been committed in this country,” he added.
Cambodia’s deputy prime minister Bin Chhin hailed the court and its work, saying it was a “historic day.”
An estimated two million people - around a quarter of the population - died from execution, starvation and forced labour during the regime’s rule from 1975-1979 in which it set out to establish an agrarian utopia.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for crimes against humanity related to forced evacuations in the first of their case’s two trials.
This second trial, which began in 2014 and concluded last June, focused on allegations of genocide of Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, forced marriage and rape, purges, persecution of Buddhists, and crimes against humanity at security centres, worksites and a cooperative.
Cham Muslim Seng Ya, 73, from Kampong Cham province was outside the court on Friday morning waiting for his chance to witness history.
He told EFE that during the regime there were 1,000 families in his village, and afterwards, just 50 remained. He was hoping to feel a sense of resolution through the court bringing justice to the victims.
Co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said while there were many killed by the regime, “almost everyone (in the country) was a victim in one way or another.”
“There has never been a case of such clear enslavement,” he said, and emphasised the importance of the recognition of forced marriage and rape within that as crimes.
He said the victims “wanted international recognition (of what happened) and now they have that.”
International defence lawyer for Nuon Chea, Victor Koppe, said his client had instructed his team to appeal the verdicts.
Khieu Samphan’s international defence lawyer Anita Guisse said she was frustrated by the fact it was a summary judgment and was awaiting the full details of the reasoning to lodge an appeal.
“We are not happy with the verdict,” added Kong Sam Onn, Cambodian defence lawyer for Khieu Samphan, saying the ruling was “very confusing.”
The case was split in two because of the breadth and complexity of the charges as well as the fear that the remaining elderly regime members might die before its conclusion.
The Khmer Rouge’s former deputy prime minister for foreign affairs Ieng Sary and minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith were also charged alongside Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, but Ieng Sary died in 2013 and in 2011 his wife Ieng Thirith was found unfit to stand trial due to dementia. She died in 2015.
The regime’s chief Pol Pot died in 1998 also before he could face the court.
On completion of the court's first case in 2012, the head of S21 security prison (Tuol Sleng), Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions on appeal.
Friday’s ruling could be the last verdict of the surviving regime leaders, with the progression of the remaining two cases uncertain. Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, has opposed pursuing further cases, citing potential for instability.
The hybrid court combining international and domestic law, which was set up between the UN and Cambodian government, formally commenced in 2006 and has faced fierce criticism for the length of time and cost (over $300 million) involved to see just three people convicted.
But unlike the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the holding of the trials in the country where the crimes took place has meant hundreds of thousands have visited the court, hundreds have testified at the trials, and information has been widely distributed around Cambodia. The country’s history is also now included in school textbooks.
Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, praised the tribunal’s verdict.
“By convicting these 2 senior Khmer Rouge leaders, the court has affirmed the unassailable truth that a genocide took place in Cambodia while the world looked away," he wrote on Twitter.
“The justice achieved in this verdict is a momentous milestone for international accountability and justice."