PHNOM PENH - Two senior leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime face a verdict Friday on genocide charges, in a ruling that experts say will bring down the curtain on the troubled U.N.-backed tribunal’s quest for justice.
The Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, Khieu Samphan, 87, and “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea, 92, are the two most senior living members of the ultra-Maoist group that seized control of Cambodia from 1975-1979.
The reign of terror led by “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot left around 2 million Cambodians dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions.
The two defendants were previously handed life sentences in 2014 over the violent and forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
But Friday’s judgment at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will decide whether the pair are guilty of overseeing genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and the Cham Muslim minority, as well as a host of other crimes.
“The verdict is essentially the Nuremberg judgment for the ECCC and thus carries very significant weight for Cambodia, international criminal justice, and the annals of history,” said David Scheffer, who served as the U.N. secretary general’s special expert on the Khmer Rouge trials from 2012 until last month.
The revolutionaries who tried to re-create Buddhist-majority Cambodia in line with their vision of an agrarian society attempted to abolish class and religious distinctions by force.
Forced marriages, rape, the treatment of Buddhists, and atrocities that were carried out in prisons and work sites throughout the country fall under the additional list of charges against the two men.
“(The verdict) will affirm the collective humanity of the victims and give recognition to the horrible suffering,” said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia — a research organization that has provided the court with evidence.
It could also “provide a sense of closure to a horrible chapter in Cambodian history.
About 800 people, including some 200 Cham Muslims, are expected to attend the hearing on Friday, said ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra.
The hybrid court, which uses a mix of Cambodian and international law, was created with the backing of the U.N. in 2006 to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders.
Only three people have been convicted by the court, which has cost more than $300 million.
Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife died without facing justice, while “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot passed away in 1998.
The number of allegations against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan was so vast the court split the trials into a series of smaller hearings in 2011.
Many believe the decision will be the last for the tribunal, which has been marred by allegations of political interference.
Prime Minister Hun Sen — himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre — has repeatedly warned he would not allow more investigations to proceed, citing vague threats to stability.
The court has launched investigations into four more Khmer Rouge cadres, though one was dismissed in February 2017, highlighting the difficulties of bringing lower level members of the brutal regime to justice.
Scheffer said that “challenges of efficiency, funding, and access to evidence” are issues that plague all international criminal courts, but argued the successes of the Cambodian tribunal should not be diminished.