Court jails Khmer Rouge leaders for life

A Cambodian Buddhist monk looks at skulls displayed at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial during the annual "Day of Anger" in Phnom Penh on May 20, 2014.

PHNOM PENH - Two former Khmer Rouge leaders were jailed for life Thursday after being found guilty of crimes against humanity by Cambodia's UN-backed court, the first-ever sentences for leaders of the murderous regime.

"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 88, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83 - the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders - betrayed no emotion in the dock, but regime survivors outside the court wept and applauded as the sentences were handed down.

Judge Nil Nonn said the pair were "guilty of the crimes against humanity, of extermination... political persecution, and other inhumane acts." Their lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, but the judge said the gravity of the crimes meant they "shall remain in detention until this judgment becomes final".

"It is unjust for my client. He did not know or commit many of these crimes," Son Arun, a lawyer for Nuon Chea, told reporters.

Prosecutors had sought the maximum life terms for the defendants, who played key roles in a regime which left up to two million people dead during the "Killing Fields" era from 1975-1979.

Nuon Chea, wearing his trademark sunglasses, sat in a wheelchair in the dock as the verdict was read, while Khieu Samphan stood next to him.

 Justice at last

The ruling, which follows a two-year trial, is likely to bring a level of relief to those who survived the Khmer Rouge years, which saw a quarter of Cambodia's population killed or die from starvation and overwork.

"This is the justice that I have been waiting for these last 35 years," said 70-year-old survivor Khieu Pheatarak, one of a few dozen survivors at the Phnom Penh-based court to hear the verdict.

"I will never forget the suffering but this is a great relief for me. It is a victory and an historic day for all Cambodians," she said.

She was among tens of thousands forced from her home in the capital at gunpoint in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge's peasant army, as the regime tried to create a communist agrarian utopia.

The plan spectacularly backfired, leading to the collapse of the economy and mass starvation, while Khmer Rouge cadres embarked on a bloody purge of perceived enemies of their revolution.

The defendants had throughout the trial denied knowledge of the regime's crimes at the time.

But they both eventually expressed a level of remorse for the suffering inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge.

Despite the verdict, many observers and victims fear the ageing Khmer Rouge leaders may not survive to serve much of their sentence.

Former foreign minister Ieng Sary died aged 87 last year while still on trial. His wife Ieng Thirith was released in 2012 after being ruled unfit for trial due to poor health.

The complex case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 for reasons including their advanced age and the large number of accusations.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society with regime atrocities affecting virtually every family in Cambodia.

In its breakthrough first trial, the court in 2010 sentenced former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to 30 years in prison - later increased to life on appeal - for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.