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Khmer Rouge verdicts offer bittersweet relief to SoCal Cambodians

Khmer Rouge survivors, Soum Rithy, left, and Chum Mey, right, embrace each other after the verdicts were announced, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge survivors, Soum Rithy, left, and Chum Mey, right, embrace each other after the verdicts were announced, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Heng Sinith/AP
Khmer Rouge survivors, Soum Rithy, left, and Chum Mey, right, embrace each other after the verdicts were announced, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Leakhena Nou, a sociology professor at Cal State, Long Beach, guides survivors of the Khmer Rouge through how to give a written testimony in this photo taken in 2010.
ASRIC/Vanta El

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Three and a half decades after the genocidal rule of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge ended, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on Thursday sentenced two top leaders of the former regime to life in prison on war crimes charges for their roles during the country's 1970s terror.

The historic verdicts were announced against Khieu Samphan, the regime's 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue — the only two surviving leaders of the regime left to stand trial.

Survivors living in Southern California and their advocates have been closely tracking the case, and welcomed the judgments.

"It’s important to educate the new generation that if people commit political violence, they will be held accountable," Cambodian-American sociology professor Leakenah Nou told KPCC.

But while survivors counted on guilty verdicts, the judgements only go so far to ease their pain, said Nou, who lost relatives during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979, nearly 2 million people died from starvation, disease and executions.

"Survivors say 'it’s still not going to bring back my loved ones,'" Nou said. "Even with this verdict, the trauma doesn’t disappear overnight."

Nou, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, with the help of volunteers organized the collection of written testimony from nearly 200 survivors in the U.S. to provide to the court. Many of the participants hail from Long Beach, which alone has about 17,000 Cambodians, and nearby communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Overseas survivors who became civil parties in the case were represented by lawyer Nushin Sakarati of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.

"Obviously, a verdict cannot replace the loss of family members and the trauma that was experienced by the victims,"  Sakarati told KPCC. "But it was still a huge step forward for the civil parties and victims in Cambodia and abroad."

The tribunal's chief judge Nil Nonn asked both men to rise for the verdicts, but the frail Nuon Chea, wearing dark sunglasses, said he was too weak to stand from his wheelchair and was allowed to remain seated.

Nil Nonn said both men were guilty of "extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity."

There was no visible reaction from either of the accused, both of whom have denied wrongdoing. The rulings can be appealed, but Nil Nonn told the court that "given the gravity of the crimes" both would remain in detention.

The case, covering the forced exodus of millions of people from Cambodia's towns and cities and a mass killing, is just part of the Cambodian story.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen called it "a historic day for both the Cambodian people and the court. The victims have waited 35 years for legal accountability, and now that the tribunal has rendered a judgment, it is a clear milestone."

Many, however, have criticized the slow justice — and its cost.

The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and comprising Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has since spent more than $200 million, yet it had convicted only one defendant — prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.

The current trial began in 2011 with four senior Khmer Rouge leaders; only two remain. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan has acknowledged that mass killings took place. But testifying before the court in 2011, he claimed he was just a figurehead who had no real authority. He denied ordering any executions himself, calling the allegations a "fairy tale." Instead, he blamed Pol Pot for its extreme policies.

Nuon Chea, who is known as Brother No. 2 for being Pol Pot's trusted deputy, had also denied responsibility, testifying in 2011 that Vietnamese forces — not the Khmer Rouge — had killed Cambodians en masse. "I don't want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals," he said of those observing to the trial. "Nothing is true about that."

Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they die.

Both men now face a second trial that is due to start in September or October, this time on charges of genocide, Olsen said. That trial is expected to take years to complete.

Speaking before the verdict, Suon Mom, a 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer era, said she is keen to see justice finally served, even if it is generations late.

"My anger remains in my heart," she said. "I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink ... Hopefully the court will sentence the two leaders to life in prison."