Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of genocide in landmark ruling 40 years after fall of brutal Cambodian regime

The two surviving leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge have been convicted of genocide in a historic ruling, four decades after the fall of the regime which wiped out up to a third of the population. In November, Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by the country's long-running international tribunal, the first genocide conviction handed down by the United Nations (UN) – backed court. "The verdict is essentially the Nuremberg judgement for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia," said David Scheffer, who served as the U.N. Secretary General's special expert on the Khmer Rouge trials from 2012 until the trial.

The two are already serving life sentences over the forced urban exodus and disappearances of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot's regime during its terrifying four-year reign in the late 1970s. Nuon Chea was the Khmer Rouge ideologist and and deputy leader considered Leader Pol Pot's right-hand man, while Khieu Samphan was the head of state who served as the regime's public face. These latest genocide verdicts relate to killings of the Cham and Vietnamese ethnic groups. The two leaders were also convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the Khmer Rouge's brutal work camps, including murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances, forced transfers, forced marriages, and rape.

An estimated 1.7 million people, nearly a third of the country’s population, were executed or died of starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist group which tried to create an agrarian utopia by forcing urban-dwellers into rural labour camps, primarily between 1959 and 1979, immediately following the Cambodian civil war. The more than 20,000 mass grave sites around the country became known as The Killing Fields. Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, ending the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, composed of Cambodian and United Nations-nominated judges, finally began its work in 2006 after decades of political and technical setbacks. The court handed down its first conviction four years later to Kang Kek lew, known as Comrade Duch, who was head of the internal security branch, the Santebal, and director of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, S-21, in Phnom Penh.

Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Kang Kek lew are the only three Khmer Rouge leaders ever to have been prosecuted. Pol Pot died of a heart attack while under house arrest in 1998, while two others indicted by the court have since died. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander turned defector who has been in power since 1985. He had vowed to halt any further prosecutions, saying they will cause political instability.