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Top Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of crimes against humanity, face life sentences

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NEW: Two top leaders of Cambodia's 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime found guilty of crimes against humanity

NEW: Both men sentenced to life imprisonment

Nuon Chea was the regime's "Brother No. 2" and Khieu Samphan its "No. 4"

The men are the first Khmer Rouge leaders ever to face justice

CNN —  

Breaking news update published 11:40 p.m. ET:

Former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, the former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and Khieu Samphan, the one-time President of Democratic Kampuchea, have been found guilty by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) of crimes against humanity. Both have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Original story published 12:58 p.m. ET

Thirty-five years after the fall of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, believed responsible for deaths of at least 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979, only a single person has been brought to justice over one of the 20th century’s great atrocities.

That will change Thursday, when two top leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime will hear verdicts for their alleged crimes against humanity, in the first trial they face relating to their alleged activities in the 1970s.

The octogenarians in the dock are Nuon Chea, the former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea known as “Brother Number Two,” and Khieu Samphan, the one-time President of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge’s state, known as “Brother Number Four.”

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for the accused, who both deny guilt and are seeking acquittal.

The men were senior leaders in the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. During that time at least 1.7 million people – about a quarter of the Cambodian population – are believed to have died from forced labor, starvation and execution, as the movement ruthlessly executed its radical social engineering policies aimed at creating a purely agrarian society.

An ongoing struggle for justice after Khmer Rouge

Who is hearing the case?

The charges are being heard in Phnom Penh in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – a special United Nations-backed tribunal that was formed in 2006 to prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders and other regime figures responsible for especially heinous acts.

The “hybrid” tribunal – officially “an ad hoc Cambodian court with international participation” – uses both Cambodian and international judges and staff employed by the U.N. in order to ensure the trials are conducted to international standards and to mitigate against the weakness of the Cambodian legal system.

Eight years on, the ECCC has delivered only one verdict.

In the ECCC’s Case 001, Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known by his alias, Duch, was sentenced to life imprisonment following his 2010 convictions for war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder and torture. He was the commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where more than 14,000 people died.

The verdicts on Thursday in the case known as 002/01 will be the first time that senior leaders of the regime have faced justice.

Who are the accused?

Nuon Chea, born in 1926, was Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s brother-in-law, and was considered his right-hand man and a key ideologist throughout the regime’s reign of terror.

Trained in law in Bangkok, the 88-year-old was second-ranked in the Communist Party of Kampuchea (as the Khmer Rouge is officially known) and served a short stint as Democratic Kampuchea’s prime minister.

Prosecutors described him as an extremist who “crossed the line from revolutionary to war criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians,” according to the ECCC.

Following the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, he remained a leading Khmer Rouge figure in the years the movement operated as a rebel guerrilla force in Cambodia’s west. He surrendered in 1998, striking a deal with the government that allowed him to live as a free man near the Thai border until his arrest in 2007, according to the ECCC.

In his final statement to the court, Nuon Chea admitted he carried “moral responsibility” for events during the period, but also affirmed his innocence, according to the ECCC.

“The CPK’s policy and plan were solely designed to one purpose only, to liberate the country from the colonization, imperialism, exploitation, extreme poverty and invasion from neighboring countries,” he said.

“The CPK’s policy was clear and specific: it wanted to create an equal society where people were the master of the country … The CPK’s movement was not designed to kill people or destroy the country. My hope and wishes were betrayed by those who destroyed the movement.”

INTERACTIVE: Five faces of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge

Like many other Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan studied in Paris, publishing his doctoral dissertation on “Cambodia’s economy and industrial development.” On his return home, he became a professor and then took on a senior government position before joining the Khmer Rouge rebels.

In 1976, he became the head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, and in 1987, years after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, he replaced Pol Pot as the head of the Khmer Rouge after the former’s retirement.

Throughout the trial, he expressed remorse for the suffering of victims, at one point offering Buddhist prayers for the souls of those who had died. But he repeatedly expressed his position that he was merely a figurehead, with no role in Khmer Rouge policy.

In his final statement, he expressed his view that the court was pre-determined to find him guilty. “[W]hatever I did was to uphold the respect for fundamental rights, and build a Cambodia that was strong, independent and peaceful,” he said. “Those who will decide on my case have refused to take into consideration the truth, and now classify me as a monster.”

What are the charges?

The charges they face relate to alleged crimes against humanity committed in the course of two forced mass population movements after the