PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Three and a half decades after the genocidal rule of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge ended, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal on Thursday sentenced two top leaders of the former regime to life in prison on war crimes charges for their roles during the country's 1970s terror.
The historic verdicts were announced against Khieu Samphan, the regime's 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue -- the only two surviving leaders of the regime left to stand trial.
The tribunal's chief judge Nil Nonn asked both men to rise for the verdicts but the frail Nuon Chea, wearing dark sunglasses, said he was too weak to stand from his wheelchair and was allowed to remain seated.
Nil Nonn said both men were guilty of "extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity."
There was no visible reaction from either of the accused, both of whom have denied wrongdoing. The rulings can be appealed, but Nil Nonn told the court that "given the gravity of the crimes" both would remain in detention.
The case, covering the forced exodus of millions of people from Cambodia's towns and cities and a mass killing, is just part of the Cambodian story.
Nearly a quarter of the population -- about 1.7 million people -- died under rule of the Khmer Rouge through a combination starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution when the group held power in 1975-79.
Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen called it "a historic day for both the Cambodian people and the court. The victims have waited 35 years for legal accountability, and now that the tribunal has rendered a judgment, it is a clear milestone."
Many have criticized the slow justice, however, and its cost.
The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and comprising of Cambodian and international jurists, began operations in 2006. It has since spent more than $200 million, yet it had convicted only one defendant -- prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
The current trial began in 2011 with four senior Khmer Rouge leaders; only two remain. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan has acknowledged that mass killings took place. But testifying before the court in 2011, he claimed he was just a figurehead who had no real authority. He denied ordering any executions himself, calling the allegations a "fairy tale." Instead, he blamed Pol Pot for its extreme policies.
Nuon Chea, who is known as Brother No. 2 for being Pol Pot's trusted deputy, had also denied responsibility, testifying in 2011 that Vietnamese forces -- not the Khmer Rouge -- had killed Cambodians en masse. "I don't want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals," he said of those observing to the trial. "Nothing is true about that."
Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials in an effort to render justice before they die.
Both men now face a second trial that is due to start in September or October, this time on charges of genocide, Olsen said. That trial is expected to take years to complete.
Speaking before the verdict, Suon Mom, a 75-year-old woman whose husband and four children starved to death during the Khmer era, said she is keen to see justice finally served, even if it is generations late.
"My anger remains in my heart," she said. "I still remember the day I left Phnom Penh, walking along the road without having any food or water to drink ... Hopefully the court will sentence the two leaders to life in prison."