The Khmer Rouge tribunal today handed down guilty verdicts for crimes against humanity to Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – the two most senior surviving members of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
Based on their involvement in a joint criminal enterprise whose plan was to implement a “rapid socialist revolution through a great leap forward by any means necessary,” the chamber pronounced the two guilty of committing crimes against humanity in the course of two phases of forced transfers of the population, and executions at Tuol Po Chrey.
Of the evacuation of Phnom Penh – the first phase of forced transfers – the trial chamber found that two million were forced out of the city “under terrifying and violent circumstances,” and “rejected any suggestion that it was necessary or proportionate in the circumstances to empty virtually the entire city”.
On the second phase of forced transfers, which began months later, the chamber found that conditions of the transfers were deplorable, and given the humanitarian crisis that many of those transferred were facing, even the decisions of those who agreed to be transferred “cannot be seen as a legitimate exercise of choice”.
Tuol Po Chrey, they found, was the continuation of a policy to eradicate potential resistance to the new Khmer Rouge regime by eliminating the remnants of its precursor.
The verdict comes almost three years after opening statements in Case 002/01, the first sub-trial in the court’s flagship case against Chea and Samphan, and more than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge’s bloody rule was brought to an end by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
Born in 1926 in Battambang province, Nuon Chea was deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge’s central organizing body. Known as Brother Number 2, Chea was second only to Pol Pot – the regime’s autocratic head – and was accused of being instrumental to the regime’s decision-making.
Khieu Samphan was born in 1931 in Svay Rieng province. A prominent member of government under King Norodom Sihanouk, Samphan was widely respected for his perceived incorruptibility, earning him the nickname “Mr Clean”.
Forced into hiding, Samphan reportedly joined with the Khmer Rouge in 1970, finally being appointed as head of state of Democratic Kampuchea. Samphan and his defence long maintained that he was unaware of the crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge, and that he was left out of all high-level planning.
Some 1.6 million people are believed to have been killed under Democratic Kampuchea through executions, disease, starvation and overwork during the regime’s nearly four-year rule.