Cambodia: Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide against Muslims

Former Khmer Rouge head of state and “Brother Number Five,” Khieu Samphan, has been charged with genocide, the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia announced Dec. 18. Samphan is the third member of the Khmer Rouge to be charged with genocide by the war crimes tribunal this week. “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former foreign minister Ieng Sary also face genocide charges—marking the first time the charge has been brought against Khmer Rouge leaders by an internationally sanctioned court. All three are accused in the deaths of thousands of members of Cambodia’s Vietnamese and the Cham Muslim minorities.

All three men had previously been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, and also face domestic charges of homicide, torture and religious persecution under the 1956 Cambodian penal code.

Prosecutors in September requested that judges clarify the charges against the five Khmer Rouge regime leaders being held by the tribunal, including former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav AKA “Duch”, whose trial ended in November. Charges against former minister of social action Ieng Thirith will be made public next week. Between 100,000 and 400,000 Cham Muslims died under the Khmer Rouge regime, according to figures provided by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. (Phnom Penh Post, London Times, Jurist, Dec. 18)

The Cham, also known as Fojihed Muslims, make up some 80% of Cambodia’s Muslims, with the remainder being traditional Sunnis. Sary Abdulah, president of Cambodia’s Islamic National Movement for Democracy says the Cham have their own language and a distinct form of Islam that incorporates many pre-Muslim folk beliefs. “They believe that they can pray, and achieve great internal power, called Chai,” he told the website “It is similar to what Kung Fu people call Chi.” (

Advocates for the Cham have been petitioning for genocide charges against Khmer Rouge leaders for years, but some legal scholars argue that they were merely “the victims of an attempt to eradicate religion, as a matter of general policy” that also included the suppression of Christianity and Buddhism. (Cambodian Genocide Group, May 3, 2005)

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  1. Cambodia genocide tribunal opens
    The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on Nov. 21 officially opened the trial of three former Khmer Rouge officials charged with crimes against humanity, breach of international law and genocide. Prosecutors began their opening statements in the trial against Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist, Khieu Samphan, a former head of state, and Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister. A fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial and ordered to be released by the ECCC last week because she suffers from Alzheimer’s. Prosecutors filed an immediate appeal of the decision to release Ieng Thirith. The prosecution will have two days for opening statements followed by half a day of opening statements for the defense. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay welcomed the opening of the trial.

    In October, defense lawyers for Nuon filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen for interfering with the UN-backed war crimes tribunal. Nuon’s lawyers accused the prime minister of criminally conspiring to block some of the defense witnesses from testifying and consequently interfering with Chea’s right to a fair trial. In September, the ECCC ordered the trials be split into a series of smaller trials. The ECCC said that the separation of trials will allow the tribunal to deliberate more quickly in the case against the elderly defendants. The first trial will focus on the beginning two phases of population movement and allegations of crimes against humanity, including murder, persecution not on religious grounds and forced disappearances associated with the first phases of population movement. Subsequent trials will focus on the third phase of population movement, genocide, persecution based on religious grounds and violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. (Jurist, Nov. 21)