PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A court on Thursday convicted two former Khmer Rouge leaders and sentenced them to life in prison for crimes against humanity they committed during their 1970s rule in Cambodia.
It was a final verdict in a long-awaited case against the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, which brutalized Cambodia and is commonly referred to as the genocidal regime.
Judge Nil Nonn said the court found evidences of "a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Cambodia".
The two former leaders were Nuon Chea, 88, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologue and former deputy to late leader Pol Pot, and 83-year-old Khieu Samphan, the former head of state.
Nonn said that they were part of a "joint criminal enterprise" and were convicted of murder, extermination, political persecution and other inhumane acts related to the mass eviction of city-dwellers and executions of enemy soldiers.
More than 1.7 million people are said to have died under the Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979.
The verdict was the first to be handed down against the Khmer Rouge leadership. Earlier a lower-ranking official, who ran a notorious prison for the regime in Phnom Penh, was convicted in 2010.
Both senior leaders will file appeals, their lawyers said Thursday. Prosecutors had sought life terms the maximum penalty allowed for both men, who remained in detention.
The proceedings of the war crime tribunal are a joint effort of the Cambodian government and the United Nations. The proceedings have been criticized as being extremely slow and for covering only a narrow sliver of the crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge was founded by a group of radical Marxists, many educated in France, who seized power in April 1975 and sought to create an agricultural utopia. Its soldiers killed many educated citizens and forced the population to work in rural collectives, most of which failed.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Chea and Samphan helped plan and direct operations to "suppress and subjugate the urban population," including by forcibly evacuating Phnom Penh in "an act of ruthless inhumanity".