PHNOM PENH — Thursday marked the conclusion of the first portion of the trial involving two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement. While prosecutors have asked the judges to hand down a life sentence for both men, the two defense teams say their clients should be acquitted and released. An estimated two million Cambodians died from harsh conditions imposed by the Khmer Rouge government in the 1970's.
Both elderly defendants addressed the court Thursday as the first part of their lengthy trial wrapped up in Phnom Penh. Their defense teams have portrayed the case against them as a show trial with a predetermined outcome.
Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two for his position as deputy to the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, argued he had not received a fair trial and he had nothing to do with the crimes that formed the basis of this case.
The 87-year-old’s words are spoken by the court’s interpreter:
“Through this trial it is clearly indicated that I was not engaged in any commission of the crimes as alleged by the co-prosecutors. In short, I am innocent in relation to those allegations,” said Chea.
In remarks lasting more than an hour, a wheelchair-bound Nuon Chea said he loved his people and would not have allowed them to suffer. The mass killings, starvation and overwork of the population was, he insisted, largely the work of Vietnamese and American agents who had sought to undermine the revolution.
Nuon Chea insisted he wielded no executive authority under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, and only learned the truth of those years after 1979.
“Nonetheless, I would like to express my deepest remorse and moral responsibility to all victims and Cambodian people who suffered during the Democratic Kampuchea regime,” said Chea.
At the start of the case, two years ago, the judges divided the complex indictment, which includes charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, into a series of mini-trials.
This first mini-trial has heard evidence about three alleged crimes: the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power; further forced movements of people around the country over the next two years; and a mass execution in 1975 of hundreds of soldiers and officials from the defeated Lon Nol government.
Regarding to the specific charges in this first mini-trial, Nuon Chea’s defense lawyer, Victor Koppe, told VOA that the decision to order the evacuation of Phnom Penh was done for military and practical reasons, and lacked criminal intent.
“The crimes that were allegedly committed during the evacuation of Phnom Penh, there was… no policy underlying to have that done. Obviously they wanted these people to move to cooperatives to work there and to produce as much rice as possible, so there was no intent of having these people killed somehow,” argued Koppe.
Nuon Chea’s defense also holds that later mass movements of people were done at the behest of regional officials, not the leaders. Koppe said the third charge - the 1975 massacre of soldiers and officials - was the consequence of local cadres taking revenge and was not a policy of the regime. Consequently, he has called for his client to be acquitted and released.
Lawyers for fellow defendant Khieu Samphan portrayed their client as a man who joined the revolution with the best of intentions and who was duped.
International prosecutor William Smith, who in court derided Khieu Samphan’s stance as “the only man in all of Cambodia who knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard nothing,” rejects the contention that the two defendants did not receive a fair trial.
Smith says numerous documents show the Khmer Rouge had a policy to kill former members of the defeated Lon Nol regime, and that policy came from the top. As for forcibly evicting the entire population of Phnom Penh, Smith argues that considering the circumstances of the move, the leadership must have known that many would die.
“Our view is that to force the population to leave without any preparations, at no notice, in the hottest month of the year; they knew that a certain amount of the population would die. Even if they didn’t want the whole population to die, they knew that would happen. I mean, it’s only common sense,” said Smith.
The prosecution estimates 20,000 people died in the two forced movements of population alone.
“So when we’re looking at numbers, let’s just say thousands at the very least, when we’re looking at thousands of people intentionally killed by leaders who were the architects of that plan and they had the control of the manner and method in which people were forced out into the countryside, and they had control of the policy which encouraged Khmer Rouge cadres to kill former Lon Nol officers and soldiers, that a life sentence is the minimum that they should give,” argued Smith.
The verdict in the first mini-trial is expected next year.
A second mini-trial - whose start date has yet to be announced - will examine allegations of genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity in a bid to ensure that the court assesses a range of charges more representative of the Cambodian people’s suffering under what the prosecution has characterized as a slave state.
An estimated 2 million people died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork during the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975 to 1979.