It took three years, but after a trial conducted by the Cambodian government in partnership with the United Nations, two former high-ranking officials were convicted of crimes against humanity for their roles as leaders of the Khmer Rouge during its bloody reign from 1975 to 1979.
Neither Nuon Chea, 88, nor Khieu Samphan, 83, is as well known as Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s late former leader. Yet their convictions last week as the two most senior surviving leaders of the communist regime that was responsible for 1.7 million deaths are important.
They were found guilty of murder, extermination, and other crimes. They were part of a regime that forced Cambodians out of their homes and into the countryside in what resulted in a brutal, unsuccessful attempt at collective farming.
The Khmer Rouge proved themselves to be incompetent managers but efficient killers. Tens of thousands of Cambodian civilians starved, while many more became victims of mass executions known in the West as “the killing fields.”
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were charged with engineering mass evacuations and a mass execution at one site. Many Cambodians are upset they didn’t face more charges, including genocide. Still, the elderly former leaders are expected to be sentenced to life in prison.
With the convictions of the two leaders, the people of Cambodia know that justice has been done, even if it took nearly four decades. Pol Pot died without being brought to trial. His top lieutenants will die in their jail cells.