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Cambodian courts reject Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan’s appeal

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An international tribunal convened in Cambodia to judge the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutalities that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. It ends its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes.

In what was to be its final session, the UN-assisted tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes of It hurts humanity. and war crimes and life imprisonment, a sentence reaffirmed on Thursday.

He appeared in court Thursday wearing a white windbreaker, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a face mask and listening to the proceedings through a pair of headphones. Seven judges attended.

Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense at trial, denied having any real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge carried out a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, leading to the deaths of Cambodians. by execution, hunger and insufficiency. medical care. He was ousted from power in 1979 by an invasion of the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.

“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his final appeal statement in court last year. “I will always remember the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will see that I am alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual deeds as an individual.”

In his appeal, he alleged that the court erred in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly, objecting to more than 1,800 points.

But the court noted Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case as it stood before the court. He rejected almost all of the arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, admitting a mistake, and reversing his decision on a minor point. The court said it found the vast majority of Khieu Samphan’s arguments to be “unfounded” and many to be “alternative interpretations of the evidence”.

The court announced that his sentence of several hundred pages would be official when published and ordered that Khieu Samphan be returned to the specially built prison where he has been held. He was arrested in 2007.

Thursday’s ruling makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and already serving another life sentence for his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to forced transfers and mass disappearances of people.

His co-defendant Nuon Chea, the leader of the Khmer Rouge. 2 leader and main ideologue, he was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.

The court’s only other conviction was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where an estimated 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture and died in 2020 at age 77 while serving a life sentence.

The real head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72 while the remnants of his movement were fighting their last battles in the guerrilla war they started after losing power.

The trials of the only other two defendants were not completed. Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and his wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, mid-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among jurists on the court.

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years following the court for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the court was successful in providing some level of accountability.

“The amount of time, money and effort that is spent to reach this fairly limited goal can be disproportionate to the goal,” he said in a video interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado.

But he praised having the trials “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay a level of attention and gather information about what was happening in court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or some other place”. The Hague in the Netherlands houses the World Court and the International Criminal Court.

The court’s legacy goes beyond individual convictions, said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and was chief of investigations for the court’s prosecution from 2006 to 2012.

“The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge and showed that while it might take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” he said.

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