Former Khmer Rouge Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea Nuon Chea (L) and former head of state Khieu Samphan are seen Friday in the courtroom at the ECCC in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photos courtesy Nhet Sok Heng/ECCC
Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Two senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge were convicted Friday by an international United Nations-backed tribunal, for genocide that led to more than 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia after the Vietnam War.
Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, were found guilty of genocide in Cambodia and Vietnam between 1974 and 1979 and sentenced to life in prison. They are two of the Khmer Rouge's most senior surviving members.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia found the pair guilty of murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political, religious and racial grounds and numerous other acts.
A statement of the court said Chea was deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and Samphan was head of the State of Democratic Kampuchea.
"Both accused were also convicted of aiding and abetting the crime against humanity of murder at worksites, cooperatives and security centers for deaths resulting from living conditions at these crime sites, including lack of food, water and medical care as well as the imposition of hard labor," the court said.
The terror group's reign dates back to 1970 when a military coup that forced Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk out of power joined the ultra-Maoist group that became the Khmer Rouge. Five years later, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. The genocide followed U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War in 1973 and preceded the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.
The group forced more than two million from Cambodia's urban centers and began to purge the country's East Zone. It was forced to move west after fighting started with Vietnam and the country ultimately seized Phnom Penh in 1979.
The court held Chea and Samphan responsible for policies that targeted Vietnamese, Cham, Buddhists and former Khmer Republic officials and their families for deaths "on a massive scale."
"Hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers were killed at S-21 Security Center after being tortured and subjected to inhumane conditions," the court said. "Buddhist symbols were destroyed, and monks were forcibly disrobed across various communes. ... Cham religious and cultural practices were banned throughout Cambodia. Mosques were dismantled and Korans were burned."
Ly Sok Kheang, the director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center and a researcher in peace and reconciliation efforts, told The New York Times the men's convictions hold great significance, even after so many years.
"We need to show the world that even if it takes a long time, we can deliver justice," Kheang said.