PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed tribunal in Cambodia sentenced the top two surviving cadres of the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime to life in jail on Thursday, delivering a semblance of justice for one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters of the twentieth century.
The ruling was only the second against "those most responsible" for the deaths of as many as 2.2 million Cambodians and could be the last handed down by a tribunal fraught with disputes and delays since its inception nine years ago.
Khmer Rouge "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 88, and former President Khieu Samphan, 83, were found guilty of crimes against humanity orchestrated by the regime as part of its ultra-Maoist revolution from 1975-1979.
Wearing dark sunglasses, the ailing Nuon Chea remained seated as the ruling was read, clutching his fingers together tightly. Khieu Samphan stood for the sentencing, listening attentively, but showing no emotion.
"There were widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population of Cambodia, attacks through many forms - forced transfer, murder, extermination, disappearances, attacks against human dignity and political persecution," Judge Nil Nonn said, taking an hour and 20 minutes to deliver the ruling.
The two men face separate charges of genocide in a second phase of the complex trial. There were initially four defendants, but former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2012 and his wife and ex-minister Ieng Thirith has Alzheimer's disease and was ruled unfit for trial.
Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge died of starvation, torture, exhaustion or disease in labor camps or were bludgeoned to death during mass executions at "killing fields" across the country. Led by Pol Pot, the regime sought to turn Cambodia back to "year zero" in its quest for a peasant utopia.
Pol Pot, "Brother Number One", died in 1998.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the verdict "a milestone" for the Cambodian people, who "suffered some of the worst horrors of the 20th Century". The European Union said the ruling "demonstrates that any political leaders can be held accountable for their acts, even decades after".
Kerry, who worked for years as a U.S. senator to help create the U.N.-backed tribunal, said the United States would continue to support its work.
"Today’s verdict is a historic, if long-delayed, step along the path for Cambodia," he said in a statement. "We must now help Cambodia’s people see the job through as they usher in a new era of justice, accountability, and reconciliation."
During the trial that started in November 2011, Nuon Chea admitted being "morally responsible" while Khieu Samphan expressed regret but said he was only a figurehead. Lawyers for both men said they would appeal Thursday's decision.
The majority of Cambodians alive now were born after the bloody era and they embrace the capitalism the Khmer Rouge deplored. Their Cambodia has enjoyed unprecedented peace and development since the late 1990s, but judgment upon Pol Pot's henchmen is still significant for most people.
Though symbolic, it does offer a chance of closure. For some survivors, however, justice might not end their torment.
"Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan committed crimes against humanity, the crimes that are the most serious in the world," said Set Maly, 65, who lost two children and six siblings.
"I'm relieved but we can't forget these crimes, what happened is still in my mind."
The court's first verdict was a life sentence for Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, head of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a school where as many as 14,000 people were tortured and executed.
But it is unclear whether there will be enough momentum, or political will, to bring further trials. The court had spent more than $200 million by last year but has been plagued by delays, disputes, unpaid salaries and resignations, while donors' doubts about its efficacy have made funding difficult to secure.
Cambodia's government includes remnants of the regime and has been accused of being uncooperative while Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has voiced his disdain for the court and discouraged further cases. Other cadres are being investigated, but there have been no new indictments.
Top Hun Sen ally and deputy prime minister, Sok An, attended the verdict and said the ruling was an important milestone.
"We've built up our country from scratch after the liberation from the genocide, the regime of horror," he said.
"And we never lost sight of justice for the victims of these horrors so we welcome this delivery of judgment and we are happy to see this is the conclusion."
Amnesty International said the verdict was an important step but that real justice would depend on Cambodia's government.
It said the earlier refusal of senior government officials to give evidence and allegations of political interference raised concerns "around the fairness of the proceedings and respect for victims' right to hear the full truth".
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel and Ken Wills