Cambodians applauded the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday after the United Nations-backed court upheld a genocide conviction against former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, the final verdict in a marathon effort to find justice for victims of the Pol Pot regime.
In dismissing the appeal, Judge Kong Srim, from the Supreme Court Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) found that a lower court, known as the Trial Chamber, had not erred in 2018 when finding the now 91-year-old guilty of genocide.
"Khieu Samphan's conviction for the crime of genocide is affirmed," he told a packed courtroom, while hundreds of victims, including ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim Cham and their families, gathered on the lawns outside and watched proceedings on big screens.
The Trial Chamber found him and former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea guilty of genocide in 2018.
Nuon Chea was the second-highest official after Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and because of that was known as "Brother No. 2." Nuon Chea died before his appeal could be heard.
Khieu Samphan is the last surviving senior leader responsible for the deaths of about two million people between April 1975 and January 1979, when Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoists tried to impose their version of an agrarian society across Cambodia.
The national currency, education and all vestiges of Khmer culture were obliterated, and as the slaughter gained pace, no one was too important to be spared.
Two of Nuon Chea's nieces, who trained as doctors in China, and a sister-in-law of Pol Pot all perished in the S21 security prison, where those tapped for execution were handcuffed and clubbed to death. Others were shot.
Bora Mom, a 43-year-old tuk-tuk driver and tourist guide, lost five members of his family to the Khmer Rouge and said he is "broadly content" with the ECCC, its work and the money spent.
"I think it's good for Cambodia and the rest of the world. I'm very happy because they bring the peace to Cambodia and the victims who lost their life, more than two million," he said.
About 800,000 people are believed to have died violently under the Khmer Rouge, with an estimated two million others succumbing to starvation and illness.
Sokna Prum, an assistant to the country director at the Goethe-Institut in Cambodia, said her only complaint about the tribunal was a lack of information about how to access the ECCC's detailed findings.
But she added the ECCC had succeeded in setting legal precedents and enshrining Khmer Rouge crimes under international law, which are now included on school curriculums.
"I do appreciate that the victims, that they somehow ignore the word 'hatred,' which the Khmer Rouge leader used to use a lot. They decide to forget but they don't forgive," she said, adding many Khmer Rouge victims continued to live in fear and silence long after the genocide had passed.
Cambodia's 30-year civil war ended in 1998 when Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea formally surrendered to Prime Minister Hun Sen, enabling a trial to proceed. Negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia were marred by bickering and further delays.
An agreement was struck in 2001 but the first hearings did not begin until early 2009. Between 2006 and 2021, the ECCC spent $330 million. A further $16 million has been allocated to fund the tribunal for the rest of this year.
Robert Carmichael, author of the Khmer Rouge book "When Clouds Fell from the Sky," said the ECCC had earned a mixed reputation, but added this should be expected given that all war crimes tribunals have been political in nature.
"There have been plenty of problems with this tribunal. From political interference to the cost – it hasn't been cheap – to the sheer length of time it took to get it up and running and, of course, for many of the Khmer Rouge victims it was too long.
"It's unrealistic to expect that politics wouldn't have intervened in this in the first place," he said. "I mean, the reason it got delayed so long is because the United Nations was recognizing Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia until the late '90s."
Tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra said people had a right to compare the court costs with the few convictions, the number of victims and scale of the carnage committed by Pol Pot and his henchmen, but he did not believe this was right.
"The mission of the ECCC is to bring justice and the truth to the Cambodian people," he told reporters outside the court, adding the life of a human being cannot be measured by money.
Another Khmer Rouge leader, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was convicted of crimes against humanity. He ran the notorious S21 security prison and processed about 24,000 people for extermination in the so-called "killing fields." There were 196 such camps across Cambodia.
Other senior Khmer Rouge leaders died behind bars while awaiting trial, including army chief Ta Mok and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, whose wife, Ieng Thirith, was ruled mentally unfit for trial.
The tribunal began winding down almost a year ago when King Norodom Sihamoni signed off on legislation enabling the ECCC to finalize its mission by the end of 2024.
"This is a historical day for the ECCC, for the Cambodian people, especially for the victims of the Khmer Rouge and for humanity. This is the beginning of the end for the ECCC too," Neth Pheaktra said, as Khieu Samphan was returned to prison.
Khieu Samphan will serve two life sentences concurrently – one for genocide and one for crimes against humanity. He and Nuon Chea were convicted of the latter charge in 2014.
Worldwide, just six people have been convicted of genocide.
The first was Jean-Paul Akayesu. In September 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted him on charges that included genocide and crimes against humanity. A former mayor, Akayesu was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ethnic Hutus killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.