Former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan loses genocide appeal | News

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The last surviving senior leader of Cambodia’s radicals Khmer Rouge regime has had an appeal against his genocide conviction rejected by a war crimes tribunal in the capital Phnom Penh.

Thursday’s ruling in the appeal by Khieu Samphan, 91, the former head of state of the 1975-1979 “Democratic Kampuchea” government, marks the final decision by the court and ends 16 years of work by the UN-backed war crimes tribunal. .

The rejection of the appeal that sought to clear Khieu Samphan of the genocide of minority Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia also closes the book on one of the regime’s French-educated intellectuals who had claimed he was ignorant of the crimes of mass murder committed by his colleagues.

Of the two million victims of the Khmer Rouge, 100,000 to 500,000 were Cham Muslims and an estimated 20,000 were ethnic Vietnamese.

Reading out the verdict in Phnom Penh, the court’s judges rejected – point by point – Khieu Samphan’s numerous arguments appealing his genocide conviction.

“The majority of Khieu Samphan’s arguments are unfounded,” said Judge Kong Srim during the lengthy reading of the decision.

Thursday’s ruling is expected to be the last by the court, which brought just five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to justice – including one who died during the trial and another who was ruled unfit to stand trial – at a cost of more than 330 million dollars.

Khieu Samphan – who is now the only remaining leader of the regime behind bars – was once known as ‘Mr Clean’ by Khmer Rougea harsh communist regime under which two million people perished in less than four years.

He had earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in the late 1950s and had a reputation for incorruptibility. But in the late 1960s he joined the Khmer Rouge revolutionary movement and became a staunch lieutenant of Pol Pot, known as Brother No. 1 and the group’s leader.

Pol Pot died in 1998 and was never convicted.

Khieu Samphan, (right), at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday, September.  22, 2022  [Nhet Sok Heng/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia via AP]
Khieu Samphan (right) at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, September 22, 2022 [Nhet Sok Heng/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia via AP]

A symbol of the regime

Although Khieu Samphan and his legal team were unable to convince the judges that he was innocent of genocidehe appeared to have convinced himself – despite being found guilty of crimes against humanity in a separate case before the court in 2014.

When white-haired Khieu Samphan launched his appeal against his genocide conviction last year, too frail to stand to deliver his personal remarks to the judges, he delivered the condemnation of his sentence from his seat; poignant 18 minutes of slow and pointed admonitions about his innocence.

Blame, Khieu Samphan said, was assigned to him as a symbol of the regime and not for his deeds as an individual.

“I am being judged symbolically,” he said.

“I categorically deny the charge and the conviction that I intended to commit the crimes, however or when they were, any crime, crimes against humanity in any form,” he said.

Khieu Samphan in Cambodia's Malai District in 1980.
Khieu Samphan in Cambodia’s Malai District in 1980 [J Kaufman/Courtesy of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia]

Cambodia’s despotic leaders – past and present – have often seen the truth “as a practical, not a moral commodity,” wrote Philip Short, the author of several acclaimed biographies, including of Pol Pot.

At interview former Khmer Rouge officials for his book, Short found that when his questions became too direct, the interviewees would respond with what were clearly fictitious answers.

“This was even more true for Western-educated leaders like Khieu Samphan than for unsettled peasants,” Short wrote. “There was no embarrassment in the lie: it was the answer such a question deserved.”

One truth was that Khieu Samphan was deeply trusted by Pol Pot.

As brief remarks, Khieu Samphan was one of only two Khmer Rouge leaders that Pol Pot had ever subjected to public praise.

Khieu Samphan’s defense team had argued that while their client held a senior position, he was not familiar with communications and meetings with more senior managers and was not aware mass crimes are committed during the reign of the regime.

However, the tribunal’s international co-prosecutor Brenda Hollis argued that Khieu Samphan participated in the most senior meetings of the group’s leadership and “either by silent ascension or active support” was a party to mass crimes.

“So he did more than just sit back and let other people make decisions,” Hollis told the appeal hearing last year.

Genocide in Cambodia

The genocide was clearly committed in Cambodia and if Khieu Samphan’s sentence had been overturned, it would have raised questions about the credibility of international legal mechanisms designed to prosecute the ultimate crime, Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), told Al Jazeera.

“He has already been judged – in the minds and hearts of the survivors; he has been convicted,” said Youk Chhang, whose research institution has meticulously documented the Khmer Rogue period, educated the public and worked with survivors.

Khmer Rouge specialist, author and recent Harvard academic Craig Etcheson said the decision to uphold the genocide charge was extremely important for Cambodia and for international justice more broadly.

“I think it’s important to the Cambodian people, and historically it’s important. There have been so few convictions for genocide in history,” said Etcheson, who had spent four decades investigating, exposing, documenting and holding those responsible for crimes under the Pol Pot regime to account.

From 2006-2012, Etcheson was also an investigator with the Office of Co-Prosecutor at the War Crimes Tribunal – whose official name is Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Commenting on Khieu Samphan’s apparent inability to admit his role in the regime’s crimes, Etcheson said it would be difficult and possibly “treacherous” to try to consider what was going on in Kheiu Samphan’s mind.

“He believes that he is being exposed to other people’s crimes. He has very selective memory,” Etcheson told Al Jazeera.

“He was right in the middle of it … in charge of hunting down traitors in the organization.”

While the tribunal’s effectiveness will be debated for years, Etcheson said he felt a “sense of accomplishment” knowing that justice was done in the case of the Khmer Rouge leaders convicted and that the investigation “put the fear of God” into those identified as war criminals , but whose cases were not processed.

“It was certainly an attack on the impunity of the Khmer Rouge, which had lasted for a long, long time,” Etcheson told Al Jazeera.

The regime’s former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, was indicted by the tribunal, but he died before the end of his trial in 2013. His wife, Ieng Thirith, former minister of social efforts under the regime, was indicted but later ruled unfit for to be tried on mental health grounds. She died in 2015.

Khmer Rouge torture chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010 for his role in the S21 death camp, where more than 14,000 people were imprisoned and tortured before being sent for execution. He died in 2020.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the regime’s “Brother No. 2”, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in 2014. Nuon Chea died in 2019 while appealing his sentence – along with Khieu Samphan – for genocide.

There is still a lot of work to be done, Etcheson said, in terms of ongoing education that allows each generation to understand what happened not so long ago.

Support was also needed for the thousands of Khmer Rouge survivors and victims who joined the tribunal as civil parties – a first for a war crimes tribunal – and provided evidence.

“That’s why so much money was spent on achieving individual accountability,” Etcheson said.

“Many people did bad things, but not everyone is equally guilty. It was the big bosses who dreamed up this nightmare and carried it out,” he said.

‘Qualified success’

Scholar and war crimes researcher Peter Maguire, author of Law and War and Facing Death in Cambodia, has been both a close observer and vocal critic of the tribunal’s proceedings.

Maguire wrote in 2018 that the tribunal was “like most UN war crimes trials since the end of the Cold War … part good, part bad and part ugly”.

He pointed out that it took a staggering $300 million and more time for the Cambodian court to try three Khmer Rouge leaders than it took the United States, Britain and France to try 5,000 war criminals after World War II.

Commenting on the conclusion of the tribunal’s work this week, Maguire said he stood by his earlier criticism of the “painfully slow and overpriced procedure”.

But, he said, the court was a “qualified success”.

In particular “for the remarkable work their investigators did in documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge”, Maguire said.

As he has explained, the court made it “clear for all to see, in painstaking detail, who did what to whom” under the regime.

“That’s the important legacy,” Maguire told Al Jazeera.

The court presented what Maguire described as “an empirical record that can never be revised or challenged”.

Asked who would have an interest in reviewing what had happened under the Pol Pot regime and what was revealed by the war crimes tribunal, Maguire said: “Well, I think, of course, the Chinese and Cambodian governments.”

Revising history

Scholars have feared for some time that the tribunal’s database – a unique collection of documentation and testimony – will not be made available after the ECCC completes its work.

There are good reasons for such concerns.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is deeply troubled by his roots in the Khmer Rouge movement.

Several senior party members, including Hun Sen, held positions of authority in the Khmer Rouge until they defected to avoid being swept away by internal purges and then returned with Vietnamese troops to overthrow Pol Pot.

China also has a history in Cambodia that it would rather forget.

Beijing was the strongest supporter of the Khmer Rouge, both in terms of material aid – much military – and also as an ideological mentor in the period 1975-1979 and beyond.

Making the tribunal’s records available should now be a priority, Etcheson said, as the tribunal enters a three-year “legacy period”, approved by the UN and the Cambodian government earlier this year, during which projects and proposals to cement the tribunal’s legacy . implemented.

Etcheson said he would like to see the release of a series of works similar to those released after the Nuremberg trials of Nazis after World War II and known as the “blue series” and “green series”.

This is a point with which Maguire agrees, noting that a similar series on the Cambodia tribunal would constitute an unimpeachable record immune to political and historical revision.

Rather than a conclusion, Youk Channg says that the court moving into a succession phase is actually the start of a new work period.

“The succession is the beginning, not the last stage of the court,” he told Al Jazeera.

DC-Cam will continue its work to educate future generations of Cambodians about the regime, collect oral histories and provide services to survivors, Youk Chhang said.

“We will continue to do that,” he said, adding that journalists will one day contact Cambodian researchers from the Khmer Rouge regime — an area of ​​research originally led by foreign researchers.

“You must continue your work”, Youk Chhang said, explaining that since genocide has not stopped in the world, the people who seek to prevent it should not stop their work either.

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