Cambodia: UN-backed tribunal ends with conviction upheld for last living Khmer Rouge leader

© ECCC/Sok Heng Nhet Nuon Chea (left) and Khieu Samphan in the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). (file)

The final Khmer Rouge leader to be prosecuted under a UN-backed special tribunal in Cambodia, has had his 2018 conviction upheld for genocide and crimes against humanity, committed during the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s, during which nearly a quarter of the country’s population was killed.

The decision of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) to uphold the conviction of the regime’s last surviving leader, Khieu Samphan, ends more than 13 years of hearings by the unique hybrid court, which was made up of both Cambodian and international judges and attorneys.

The court reportedly cost as total of $330 million, since being established in 1997.

Appeal denied

A former head of State, Mr. Samphan had appealed his conviction in what is expected to be the court’s final judgement. The court upheld his sentence of life imprisonment. 

When he was first convicted, the judgement emphasized that he had “encouraged, incited and legitimised” policies of the regime that led to civilian deaths “on a massive scale”.

Three of the Khmer Rouge leaders were convicted, beginning with “Comrade Duch” who ran a notorious torture centre in the capital Phnom Penh, where all but 12 of its 20,000 inmates perished


Noun Chea, known as “Brother Number Two” in the Communist Party hierarchy of the regime, was arrested in 2007, given a life sentence by the ECCC seven years later, and died in prison in 2019. The overall leader of the regime Pol Pot, died in 1998.

According to news reports, 91-year-old Khieu Samphan, insisted during the tribunal proceedings that he was unaware of any “heinous acts” committed by other leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

Under their rule, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from execution, torture, starvation and neglect, in the form of diseases left untreated, in the quest to convert the war-ravaged nation into a rural utopia. Up to three million may have died overall during the reign of terror, according to the ECCC.

It is estimated that some 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese and 100-500,000 Cham Muslims were also among those killed.

Two of the five who were put on trial as part of the delayed tribunal proceedings, died before they could face judgement, and Pol Pot, died before charges could even be brought.