Justice prevails over Pol Pot regime’s genocidal crimes

October 07, 2022 - 08:50
The UN-backed session in the court of Cambodia on September 22, 2022, closed the final appeal judgement case to bring closure to the 16-year-long judicial journey to bring former leaders of the Pol Pot regime to court and trial.
Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Quốc Uy*

The UN-backed session in the court of Cambodia on September 22, 2022, closed the final appeal judgement case to bring closure to the 16-year-long judicial journey to bring former leaders of the Pol Pot regime to court and trial.

With the exception of Pol Pot – the top leader of the regime, who died in 1998 due to illness, 5 other former leaders of Demoratic Kampuchia, including Khieu Samphan, former President of its State Presidium, were brought to an international court in 2007 for their war crimes and crimes against humanity during their rule in Cambodia from April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979.

In this final court session, Khieu Samphan's appeal was turned down, and the life sentence he received from the preliminary court in 2018 remained effective. In the court case documented No. 002/02, Khieu Samphan was sentenced to life in prison for his crime against the ethnic Vietnamese and the Cham minority in Cambodia (excluding crimes committed by Pol Pot troops on Vietnamese territory during their aggressive attacks between 1977 - 1978).

This was the second life sentence Khieu Samphan has received, in addition to his previous life sentence announced in 2014 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, with Nuon Chea, former President of the Standing Committee of the People's Representative Assembly of Democratic Kampuchea.

In the court case documented No. 002/01, announced in 2014, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were found guilty of crimes against humanity, of extermination, murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, forced disappearances and attacks against human dignity committed within the territory of Cambodia between 17 April 1975 and December 1977.

In 2018, the Trial Chamber announced a summary of its findings and the disposition in the court case documented No. 002/02, which found Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and genocide of Vietnamese ethnic, national and racial groups. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Chamber took into consideration the life sentences imposed on Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in case 002/01 and merged the sentences in cases 002/01 and 002/02 into a single term of life imprisonment.

Khieu Samphan, 91, was the last living leader of the Pol Pot regime, and also the last living among the 5 defendants to serve the imprisonment penalty, as the 4 others, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, his wife Ieng Thirith and Kaing Guek Eav, died during the trial.

Judge Kong Srim read in the final court hearing that 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died during the Democratic Kampuchea that ruled today's Cambodia from 1975-1979.

During this regime, whose leaders were trained in the west and spoke multiple languages, they practised activities that would supposedly lead to an agrarian utopia, in which no intellectuals were allowed to exist, and city inhabitants were pushed to live in the countryside.

"A culture of fear prevailed through mass killings, torture, violence, persecution, forced marriage, forced labour, enforced disappearance and other inhumane treatment," Judge Kong Srim said.

This ECCC announcement certified that no one can deny the genocide that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 until earlyJanuary 1979.

For 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, Democratic Kampuchia, led by Pol Pot, established a regime without intellectuals or urban people, with no schools, no hospitals, no markets, no money circulation, and no postal services.

People were stripped of their basic rights, including their right to live and possess personal belongings and the freedom to marry. They were driven to live in misery in forced labour camps, where Pol Pot troops could just beat them to death for any or no reason.

The country gradually became a killing field.

These crimes would not have been put to an end had the Vietnamese army not come for help.

In response to the call for help from the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, the Vietnamese volunteer army came to rescue the Cambodian people.

Moreover, if the Vietnamese volunteer army and civilian experts did not stay on for the next 10 years (1979-1989) to help fellow Cambodians build a normally functioning society and help their country revive, who else would be there to prevent the genocidal regime from returning to power?

Millions of ordinary Cambodian people were rescued from the Pol Pot genocide, and they still thank those who saved their lives.

This United Nations-backed court finally brought justice for all the people, not only Cambodians and ethnic Vietnamese and Cham, who perished during the harsh regime. It also brought justice and righteousness to the Vietnamese involvement to help end the brutal regime, which crossed the border to Việt Nam and killed civilians.

In 1977 Pol Pot troops launched attacks in all 14 communes along the border between Việt Nam and Democratic Kampuchea. In April 1978, they launched a notorious attack in Ba Chúc, An Giang Province, killing 3,157 people.

After negotiation attempts failed to obtain peace, from December 25, 1978, to January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese army, launched a counterattack and toppled the regime, thus ending the genocide. The Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh, liberated Cambodians imprisoned in labour camps, and dismantled the whole system from central to village level.

For all these years when Cambodians suffered in forced labour camps, and up to 2 million died, there was no international denouncement of the maltreatment of Cambodian people and the mass killings.

When Việt Nam liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, the country faced international denouncement that it had "invaded Kampuchea" and was even subjected to boycotts and economic sanctions from many countries.

The reality shows that Việt Nam was treated unfairly.

This final court verdict shows that nearly half a century later, justice has prevailed. The Vietnamese volunteer army going to rescue the people in response to the appeal of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation was essential, justifiable and righteous.

It has brought justice to not only Cambodians who died during the Pol Pot regime, but also to Vietnamese victims killed by Pol Pot troops in Việt Nam and the nearly 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers who died, saving Cambodian lives.

Justice and righteousness must be carried out; it is better late than never. VNS

*Vietnam News Agency Phnom Penh Bureau Chief in Cambodia (1991-1995), VNA Phnom Penh-based reporter (1980-1985)