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Cambodia top court upholds life sentences for Khmer Rouge leaders

Nuon Chea, second-in-command to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot during the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1979, in Phnom Penh, 23 November 2016. Nhet Sokheng/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld two life sentences for the two most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge on Wednesday. The judgement comes four decades after a genocide that claimed up to two million lives. Observers say the country still has far to go towards reconciliation.

Khieu Samphan, 85, and Nuon Chea, 90, were respectively head of state and top advisor to the communist group’s late leader Pol Pot during the genocide lasting from 1975 and 1979.

They were first detained in 2007, and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution by the UN tribunal the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2014.

Forty-one years after the events, the Supreme Court Chamber of Cambodia said Wednesday the tribunal’s warning was appropriate given the gravity of the crimes and roles of the two men.

“It’s historic, it’s the first time that anyone in the national leadership has been held criminally responsible for some of the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime,” says tribunal spokesperson Lars Olsen.

“The message we get from many survivors and victims is that they want to see justice done, so they do want to see an end to these proceedings.”

David Scheffer, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy to the tribunal, said the verdict was a warning to other human rights abusers, including in North Korea, the Philippines and the Islamic State armed group.

“What happened today in this courtroom ultimately can reach their domain because international justice is not backing down,” Scheffer told reporters after the verdict.

But the verdict is also a message to the survivors of genocide.

“It is a message that there is a process of justice if any injustice took place against us,” says Youk Chhang, a survivor who is today executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

“The judgement restores hope that this can happen, despite not being able to bring back what we have lost or ensure all leaders will not commit such crimes again.”

A long process ahead

While there is desire to turn the page in Cambodia, there is not universal consensus on how to carry on with the reconciliation process.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has been critical of the effectiveness of the tribunal – a complex and slow-moving institution that has only convicted three people since its creation in 2006 – and has expressed concern that future trials could provoke new conflicts.

Others argue more public outreach is needed to explain how the court works and what its decisions mean.

“Maybe 10 or 20 percent of the people understand the meaning and the impact of the judgement,” says Long Panhavuth, program director of George Soros-funded foundation the Cambodia Justice Initiative.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not the accused is sentenced to life imprisonment when the public does not understand why he was convicted, how the proceeding before them was fair, and what impact it will have on the suffering of victims of the regime.”

For Youk Chhang, who is optimistic about the work the country is doing to move forward, reconciliation does not boil down to court decisions.

“Reconciliation is a personal matter. It would be too simple to conclude this judgement could reconcile the entire society,” says Youk Chhang. “The Khmer Rouge caused disaster for Cambodia, and I think reconciliation is going to take more time.

“However, this judgement contributes in a way that people can use it,” he continues. “Cambodia is the only country in the world with locally initiated genocide education, teaching its own population with limited resources and capacity. Therefore it [the judgement] is a complement to the other processes of reconciliation in Cambodia.”