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Khmer Rouge Leaders Get Life Sentences

Soum Rithy (C), who lost his father and three siblings during the Khmer Rouge regime, breaks out in tears and hugs another survivor after the verdict was delivered in the trial of former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and former Khmer Rouge leade

Two aging Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison, three-and-a-half decades after the communist group's bloody rule left nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population dead.

A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled Thursday 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.

Neither showed any emotion as chief judge Nil Nonn read the court's decision.

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

The court rejected this argument. It said 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.

Lawyers for both men say they will appeal the rulings, but judges say the two will remain jailed because of the gravity of the crimes.

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. Many broke down in tears and hugged their relatives as the verdicts were read.

One of those grateful for the ruling was Sum Rithy, who survived a Khmer Rouge prison in Siem Reap province.

"I thank the court for sentencing these two former Khmer Rouge leaders to life in prison. I am very much satisfied with this decision because I suffered so much when I was in prison under that regime," said Sum.

Seventy-three-year-old Bou Meng, who survived the infamous Tuol Sleng death camp in Phnom Penh said compensation should also be given to the victims.

"I completely accepted the verdict, but I suggest the court should offer personal compensation in accordance with the civil party law of Cambodia," said Bou.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are the most senior leaders to be convicted by the tribunal, which began operations in 2006 and has since experienced funding issues, corruption, and other scandals.

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.