Verdict On Khmer Rouge Leaders Is First To Officially Acknowledge Regime's Genocide Nuon Chea, 92, who was the No. 2 leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979 and Khieu Samphan, the 87-year-old former head of state of the brutal regime, were found guilty of genocide and other crimes.
NPR logo Verdict On Khmer Rouge Leaders Is First To Officially Acknowledge Regime's Genocide

Verdict On Khmer Rouge Leaders Is First To Officially Acknowledge Regime's Genocide

Khieu Samphan, left, former Khmer Rouge head of state, stands at the dock in a court room during a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday. Nhet Sok/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia hide caption

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Nhet Sok/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Khieu Samphan, left, former Khmer Rouge head of state, stands at the dock in a court room during a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday.

Nhet Sok/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

The last two surviving leaders of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s were found guilty Friday by an international tribunal on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The conviction of Nuon Chea, 92, the chief lieutenant of the regime's infamous leader, Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, the former head of state, is the first official acknowledgement that at least some of the estimated 2 million people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 were victims of an orchestrated genocide.

Nuon Chea, who was the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sits in a court room before a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday. Mark Peters/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia hide caption

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Mark Peters/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Nuon Chea, who was the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sits in a court room before a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday.

Mark Peters/AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Samphan was in court and appeared stone-faced as the verdict was read by Judge Nil Nonn of the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. He and Chea — who suffers heart problems and watched the proceedings from a separate room — were sentenced to life in prison, the same sentence they are already serving after earlier convictions for crimes against humanity.

Specifically, Friday's verdict establishes that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against the country's Vietnamese and Cham minorities.

As The Associated Press notes:

"The Khmer Rouge sought to achieve an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities to establish vast rural communes. Instead, their radical policies led to what has been termed 'auto-genocide' through starvation, overwork and execution.

"The crimes against humanity convictions covered activities at work camps and cooperatives established by the Khmer Rouge. These offenses comprised murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political, religious and racial grounds, attacks on human dignity, enforced disappearances, forced transfers, forced marriages and rape."

The Khmer Rouge came to power in the instability that swept through Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War. The regime was ultimately toppled by a 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

Although Chea and Samphan have suggested in the past that they are victims of a political vendetta, in 2013, they acknowledged a degree of responsibility for the atrocities committed in their names.

Michael Sullivan, reporting for NPR from neighboring Thailand, says that the U.N. backed tribunal has spent 10 years and more than $300 million seeking justice for those who died.

"Only five people have been put on trial, with three convicted. The other two died during the proceedings. Cambodia's prime minister Hun Sen — himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre — has made it clear he wants today's convictions to be the last, though others disagree," Sullivan says.