Skulls and bones are pictured at the Choeung Ek memorial during the annual "Day of Anger", where people gather to remember those who perished during the Khmer Rouge regime, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 20, 2018.(Photo: VCG)
Two senior leaders of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge were found guilty of genocide on Friday, in a historic court decision four decades after the fall of the brutal regime.
The reign of terror led by "Brother Number 1" Pol Pot in 1975-1979 left some two million Cambodians – a quarter of the population – dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions.
Friday's ruling however was the first to acknowledge a genocide.
The two men convicted were former head of state Khieu Samphan, 87, and "Brother Number 2" Nuon Chea, 92 – the two most senior living members of the Khmer Rouge. They were already handed life sentences in 2014 for the violent and forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
But Friday's judgement at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) also found Nuon Chea guilty of genocide against the ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minority group, among a litany of other crimes.
"The chamber finds that Nuon Chea exercised ultimate decision-making power with Pol Pot and... therefore finds Nuon Chea is responsible as a superior for all the crimes," presiding judge Nil Nonn said. "This includes the crime of genocide by killing members of the Cham ethnic and religious group."
Khieu Samphan was meanwhile found guilty of genocide against ethnic Vietnamese, though not against the Cham.
The two men were sentenced to "life in prison", merging their two sentences into a single term, Nil Nonn said.
They were also found guilty of crimes like forced marriages, rape and atrocities carried out in prisons and work sites throughout the country.
The events covered by the verdict span the four years of the Pol Pot regime, and include extensive crimes against humanity.
"The verdict is essentially the Nuremberg judgement 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 UN secretary general's special expert on the Khmer Rouge trials from 2012 until last month.
"(The verdict) will affirm the collective humanity of the victims and give recognition to the horrible suffering," added 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."
Hundreds of people, including dozens of Cham Muslims and Buddhist monks, were bussed into the tribunal, located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to attend the hearing.
The hybrid court, which uses a mix of Cambodian and international law, was created with the backing of the UN in 2006 to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders.
Only three people have been convicted by the court, which has cost more than 300 million US dollars, and many believe Friday's decision will be its last.
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.