PHNOM PENH – Considered the chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, arrogant, intimidating, and above all unrepentant, was seen as a key architect of the regime’s killing machine.
Once leader Pol Pot’s most trusted deputy, the 88-year-old was Thursday sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, three decades after the era of the “Killing Fields,” one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
Wheelchair-bound, the man known as “Brother No. 2” wore his trademark sunglasses in the dock as the judge pronounced the verdict.
Arrested in September 2007, Nuon Chea had denied a role in the killings, telling judges he was mainly in charge of educating fellow cadres. During the trial, he frequently walked out of the courtroom in protest at proceedings, angering victims of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the late 1970s.
Addressing the country’s U.N.-backed tribunal in October last year in his final statement, Nuon Chea expressed his “deepest remorse” for those who suffered under the regime, but he blamed everything on “treacherous” subordinates.
He said he had educated Khmer Rouge cadres “to love, respect and serve the people and the country.”
Nuon Chea was accused of playing a critical role in a regime which left up to 2 million people dead of starvation, disease, overwork and executions between 1975 and 1979.
He and his fellow defendant, Khieu Samphan, 83, were “dictators who controlled Cambodians by brutal force and fear,” according to prosecutor William Smith. “They brutalized and dehumanized their own people and kept spilling blood for power,” he said.
Born Long Bunruot in 1926 to a wealthy Chinese-Khmer family in Cambodia’s northwest Battambang province, Nuon Chea studied law in Bangkok, where he joined the Communist Party of Thailand in 1950. A year later he transferred membership to the Vietnamese-dominated Indochinese Communist Party, and rose quickly through the ranks of Cambodia’s Maoist insurrection.
In April 1975, the communists defeated Cambodia’s U.S.-backed government and marched into Phnom Penh.
Nuon Chea, a secretive cadre even by the standards of one of the world’s most enigmatic movements, was by then positioned as the second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge, also known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).
It is unknown how many of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were killed outright, but researchers believe the regime was systematically eliminating its “enemies,” most likely on Nuon Chea’s orders.
“There is substantial and compelling evidence that Nuon Chea, commonly known as ‘Brother No. 2,’ played a leading role in devising the CPK’s execution policies,” wrote genocide scholars Stephen Heder and Brian Tittemore.
Nuon Chea became the first former regime leader living freely in Cambodia to be detained by the U.N.-backed tribunal in 2007.
In the 2009 documentary “Enemies of the People,” Cambodian film-maker Thet Sambath extracted startling revelations from him. “These people were categorized as criminals. . . . They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people,” he said.