Khieu Samphan (July 27th, 1931 - ) was the president of the state presidium of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) from 1976 until 1979. As such, he served as Cambodia's head of state and was one of the most powerful officials within the Khmer Rouge, though Pol Pot remained the highest official in the party. On 7 August 2014, they were convicted and received life sentences for crimes against humanity during the Cambodian Genocide and a further trial found him guilty of genocide in 2018. As of 2021, he is the last surviving senior member of the Khmer Rouge following the deaths of Nuon Chea in August 2019 and Kang Kek Iew in Septmeber 2020.
Within the Khmer Rouge, Samphan was known as Brother Number Four.
Samphan was born in Svay Rieng Province to Khieu Long, who served as a judge under the French Protectorate government and his wife Por Kong. Samphan was of Khmer-Chinese extraction, having inherited his Chinese heritage from his maternal grandfather. When Samphan was a young boy, Khieu Long was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to imprisonment, leaving Samphan's mother to take up a living selling fruits and vegetables in Kampong Cham Province where he grew up. Nevertheless, Samphan managed to earn a seat at the Lycée Sisowath and was able to travel to France to pursue his university studies in Economics at the University of Montpellier after which he earned a PhD at the University of Paris.
Khieu became a member of the circle of leftist Khmer intellectuals studying in Sorbonne, Paris, in the 1950s. His 1959 doctoral thesis, "Cambodia's Economy and Industrial Development" advocated national self-reliance and generally sided with dependency theorists in blaming the wealthy, industrialized states for the poverty of the Third World. He was one of the founders of the Khmer Students' Association (KSA), out of which would grow the left-wing revolutionary movements that would so alter Cambodian history in the 1970s, most notably the Khmer Rouge. Once the KSA was shuttered by French authorities in 1956, he founded yet another student organization, the Khmer Students' Union.
Returning from Paris with his doctorate in 1959, Khieu held a law faculty position at the University of Phnom Penh and started L'Observateur, a French-language leftist publication that was viewed with hostility by the government. L'Observateur was banned by the government in the following year. and police publicly humiliated Khieu by beating, undressing and photographing him in public. Despite this, Samphan was invited to join Prince Sihanouk's Sangkum, a 'national movement' that operated as the single political party within Cambodia. Samphan stood as a Sangkum deputy in the 1962, 1964 and 1966 elections, in which the lattermost the rightist elements of the party, led by Lon Nol, gained an overwhelming victory; he then became a member of a 'Counter-Government' created by Sihanouk to keep the rightists under control. However, Khieu's radicalism led to a split in the party and he had to flee to a jungle after an arrest warrant was issued against him. At the time, he was even rumoured to have been murdered by Sihanouk's security forces.
In the Cambodian coup of 1970 the National Assembly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk as head of state, and the Khmer Republic was proclaimed later that year. The Khmer Rouge, including Khieu Samphan, joined forces with the now-deposed Prince Sihanouk in establishing an anti-Khmer Republic coalition known as the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), and an associated government: the Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK). In this alliance with his former enemies, Samphan served as deputy prime minister, minister of defence, and commander-in-chief of the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces, the GRUNK military. FUNK defeated the Khmer Republic in April 1975 and took control of all of Kampuchea.
During the years of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), Samphan remained near the top of the movement, assuming the post of president of the central presidium in 1976. His faithfulness to Pol Pot meant that he survived the purges in the later years of the Khmer Rouge rule. His roles within the party suggest he was well entrenched in the upper echelons of the CPK, and a leading figure in the ruling elite.
In 1985 he officially succeeded Pol Pot as leader of the Khmer Rouge, and served in this position until 1998. In December 1998 Khieu and former Pol Pot's deputy Nuon Chea surrendered to the Royal Cambodian Government. Prime Minister Hun Sen however defied international pressure and Khieu Samphan was not arrested or prosecuted at the time of his surrender. But they ended up being tried in court.
Arrest and trial
Khieu Samphan at a public hearing before the Pre-Trial Chamber in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on 3 July 2009. On 13 November 2007, 76 year old Samphan reportedly suffered a stroke. This occurred one day after the former Khmer Rouge Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife were arrested for war crimes committed while they were in power. At about the same time, a book by Samphan, Reflection on Cambodian History Up to the Era of Democratic Kampuchea, was published; in the book, he wrote that he had worked for social justice and the defence of national sovereignty, while attributing responsibility for all of the group's policies to Pol Pot.
According to Samphan, under the Khmer Rouge "there was no policy of starving people. Nor was there any direction set out for carrying out mass killings", and "there was always close consideration of the people's well-being." He acknowledged the use of coercion to produce food due to shortages. Samphan also strongly criticized the current government in the book, blaming it for corruption and social ills.
The historian Ben Kiernan stated that Samphan's protestations (such as the fact that he regarded the collectivization of agriculture as a "surprise", and his expressions of sympathy for his "friend" Hu Nim, a fellow member of the CPK hierarchy tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng) betrayed the fundamental "moral cowardice" of a man mesmerized by power but lacking any nerve.
After he left a Phnom Penh hospital where he was treated following his stroke, Samphan was arrested by the Cambodia Tribunal and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In April 2008 former Democratic Kampucuchea head of state Khieu Samphan made his first appearance at Cambodia's genocide tribunal. His lawyer, the late Jacques Vergès, used the defence that while Samphan has never denied that many people in Cambodia were killed, as head of state, he was never directly responsible for any crimes. On 7 August 2014, he and Nuon Chea received life sentences for crimes against humanity. His lawyer immediately announced the conviction would be appealed. The tribunal will continue a trial on his genocide charges as a separate process.
Friday 16 nov.2018 Nuon Chea, 92, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who served as head of state, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979, in what is a landmark moment for the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The pair are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity.
As senior figures in the Khmer regime, the court declared both men responsible for murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, enforced disappearances and mass rape through the state policy of forced marriages .
Nuon Chea, described by the court as “Pol Pot’s right hand”, was found guilty of all charges of genocide of the Vietnamese, former Khmer republic officials and the Cham Muslim minority. Khieu Samphan was found guilty of the genocide of the Vietnamese but was cleared of involvement in the genocidal extermination of the Cham.
The verdict gave a detailed account of some of the most horrific actions carried out by the regime, particularly focusing on the infamous S-21 security prison and execution site where tens of thousands were killed. Interrogations, and executions were carried out under the direct instruction of those in the “upper echelons, including Nuon Chea”, who oversaw S-21 for two years. “The chamber finds that prisoners were brought to interrogation rooms, handcuffed and blindfolded, their legs chained during questioning” said the verdict, adding that interrogation methods included “beatings with sticks, rocks, electrical wire, whips, electric shocks and suffocation and the extraction of of toenails and fingernails.” As the list of the regime’s crimes were read out in detail, Nuon Chea asked to be excused from the court on the basis of ill health. The judgment also emphasised that Khieu Samphan “encouraged, incited and legitimised” the criminal policies that lead to the deaths of civilians “on a massive scale” including the millions forced into labour camps to build dams and bridges and the mass extermination of Vietnamese. Buddhist monks were forcibly defrocked while Muslims were forced to eat pork. From the archive, 18 April 1975: Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia
David Scheffer, who was UN secretary general’s special expert on assistance to the Khmer Rouge trials and the former US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, described the genocide verdict as “very significant”. “This is comparable, in Cambodia, to the Nuremberg judgment after world war two,” Scheffer told the Guardian. “That is worth the money and effort.” On Friday(16 november 2018)morning the courtroom in the capital of Phnom Penh was packed with families of some of the 1.7 million Cambodians who died between 1975 and 1979, through a combinations of mass executions, starvation and brutal labour camps, in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
“It was such an evil regime and it was the worst example of what a government can do,” said prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian. “I think this verdict is a very timely and very necessary. The fact that these crimes happened 40 years ago in no way diminishes the impact of this verdict for those who were affected by the crimes, people whose parents were tortured and killed.”