Updated: 08/09/2014 01:45 | By Agence France-Presse

Cambodia hails Khmer Rouge verdict amid future trial fears

Cambodia welcomed Friday the conviction of two Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, amid concerns from rights groups that political interference would prevent other regime officials from being brought to trial.

Cambodia hails Khmer Rouge verdict amid future trial fears

Soum Rithy (L), a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge, cries as he hugs Chum Mey (R), survivor of Tuol Sleng prison, after hearing the verdict in the trial of two former Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh on August 7, 2014 - by Tang Chhin Sothy

On Thursday Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal sentenced "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 88, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 83, to life imprisonment.

It was the first-ever conviction for top leaders of a regime responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians through starvation, overwork or execution from 1975-1979.

"We never lost sight of justice for the victims of these horrors so we welcome this delivery of judgement," said cabinet spokesman Ek Tha.

The complex case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 to get a faster verdict given their advanced age and the vast number of accusations.

A second trial against the pair began last week, while the tribunal is also investigating two new possible cases involving several lower-ranking cadres.

But Prime Minister Hun Sen -- an ex-regime official who defected in 1977 -- has strongly opposed pursuing further cases, raising concerns the government is protecting one-time Khmer Rouge cadres now in the ruling party.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Friday welcomed the convictions but criticised government-installed Cambodian judges and prosecutors of obstructing investigations.

"The goal of justice for Khmer Rouge victims has been irrevocably tarnished by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political interference, the failure to bring more cases, long delays, and pervasive corruption," said HRW Asia director Brad Adams in a statement, calling for free investigations of other suspects.

But the verdict was also hailed by many victims, foreign governments and social rights campaigners on Thursday.

"This is the justice that I have been waiting for these last 35 years," said Khieu Pheatarak, who lost 20 family members under the regime, after watching the judgement.

Nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population was wiped out in the communist regime's quest to build an agrarian utopia.

The Khmer Rouge court, set up in 2006, has been hit by chronic cash shortages -- relying almost entirely on foreign donations -- as well as being dogged by allegations of political interference.

The Cambodian cabinet spokesman said the government had never interfered in the court's work.

"We leave the court to do their job," he said in an email to AFP, refusing to comment on additional cases.

The convictions Thursday followed a two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of around two million Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps and murders at one execution site.

HRW criticised the trial as being too narrow in scope to cover the systematic executions conducted during the "Killing Fields" era.

In their second trial, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan face charges including genocide of Vietnamese people and ethnic Muslims, forced marriages and rape.

Lawyers for both men have said they will appeal Thursday's conviction in a process that could take at least another 18 months for a final judgement.

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