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UN Tribunal Convicts Khmer Rouge Leaders of Crimes Against Humanity

FILE - Khieu Samphan (l), former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sit in the court room before they made closing statements at the U.N.- backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Oct. 31, 2013.

A United Nations-backed tribunal has convicted two aging Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity, three-and-a-half decades after the communist group's bloody rule left nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population dead.

The court ruled Thursday that 83-year-old ex-head of state Khieu Samphan and 88-year-old former chief ideologue Nuon Chea were guilty of murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts. The tribunal sentenced the two leaders, who are in poor health, to life in prison.

The aging leaders, who are the two most senior living Khmer Rouge ex-officials, deny wrongdoing, saying they either did not know about the crimes or had no power to stop them.

The court rejected this argument. It said that Khieu Samphan's position as head of state meant he was aware of the policy of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. It also found Nuon Chea exercised "ultimate decision-making" power in the party.

The current case against the two leaders relates to the 1975 forced expulsion of millions of Cambodians from Phnom Penh to rural working camps. A second phase of the tribunal, which began last week, focuses on other charges, including genocide.

As many as two million Cambodians died of starvation, overwork, and execution during the 1975-1979 rule of the Khmer Rouge, which attempted to create a socialist utopia.

Hundreds of Khmer Rouge survivors gathered at the court in Phnom Penh to hear the verdicts the two Khmer Rouge leaders.

One of them is 73-year-old Bou Meng, who survived the infamous Tuol Sleng Khmer Rouge death camp.

"I want to see justice -- not just partial justice, but justice for all the people everywhere," said Bou.

Another Khmer Rouge leader who was originally part of the current case, ex-foreign secretary Ieng Sary, died last year at age 87. His wife, Ieng Thirith was later found mentally unfit for trial and released.

In 2010, the tribunal convicted and sentenced to life in prison former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch," for his role in killing more than 14,000 while running the Tuol Sleng center in Phnom Penh.

The group's leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.