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Two Former Khmer Rouge Leaders Sentenced to Life in Prison

Khieu Samphan, second from right, former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Noun Chea, left, who was the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, is seen on a screen at the court's press center of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cam

The UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal handed down a major verdict in trials against two senior regime leaders on Thursday, delivering life sentences to Nuon Chea, the regime’s chief ideologue, and Khieu Samphan, its nominal head of state.

The charges in that phase were centered around crimes committed under the orders of the two men for the exodus.

Nuon Chea, also known as Brother No. 2, was the lieutenant of Pol Pot, who died in a Khmer Rouge jungle outpost in 1998. He was the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and filled other various senior leadership roles within the regime, according to court charges. Khieu Samphan was a member of the party’s Central Committee and ultimately dubbed its head of state, the President of the State Presidium.

Together, they were both charged in the first phase of the trial with joint criminal enterprise and crimes against humanity, including “murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer and attacks against human dignity during movement of population,” according to court documents.

The verdict will put to rest at least some anxiety from survivors of the regime, who have long worried the aging leaders would not live to see a verdict handed down.

Chhum Mey, 84, who lived through the exodus and brutal imprisonment, told reporters outside the tribunal Thursday that justice had been “100 percent” delivered, but he would not celebrate until appeals and other court processes were complete. “What we are waiting for is to see the two leaders receive life in jail in truth,” he said.

The verdict marks the beginning of the end to a major portion of the court’s work, which has seen successes and failures along the way.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were arrested in 2007, charged with atrocities crimes and detained, alongside three other leaders of the regime. Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, died while in tribunal custody, while his wife, Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, was released to house arrest and found mentally unfit to stand trial. A fifth Khmer Rouge member, Comrade Duch, was already given a life sentence for his role as supervisor of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture center.

The first phase of a two-phase trial began for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in late 2011, in a trial that included more than 1,000 witnesses and 7,000 documents. The scope of that phase—whose verdict was issued Thursday—was limited to the forced exodus of the Cambodian population from urban centers when the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, following a protracted insurgency.

A second trial phase for both men is expected to begin later this year. Meanwhile, lawyers for the two defendants say they will appeal Thursday’s verdict.