The last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, has made his final appeal against his conviction for genocide as the long-running United Nations-backed Cambodia tribunal held its last public hearings before winding down.
Amid tight security and health restrictions imposed to guard against the COVID-19 pandemic, Khieu Samphan delivered a dramatic 16-minute defense in which he categorically refused to accept his 2018 conviction for genocide against Cambodia's Muslim Cham and ethnic Vietnamese.
“I cannot accept the accusation that I was involved in a plot to commit crimes against my compatriots, including the Cham or the Vietnamese,” he said.
“Many years of sitting as a defendant at the end of this long case it is important for me to inform you and especially inform the Cambodian people that I never wanted to commit a crime against my compatriots or anyone else,” he said.
“No matter what you decide I will die in prison. I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing death. I am alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual deed and as an individual. That’s the end.”
With that, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia ended 15 years of public hearings and went into its final recess.
Courts spokesman Neth Pheaktra said a decision on the appeal was not expected until the fourth quarter of next year, and in the meantime the court will finalize outstanding legal issues and cases that would not proceed.
“We still have some administrative work to finalize between the Cambodian government and the United Nations before the court will close. It means, complete its mission,” he told VOA.
The Khmer Rouge split from the Indochinese Communist Party after secret meetings were held at the back of the Phnom Penh railway station in 1960 and then pushed Cambodia into a civil war as the conflict in neighboring Vietnam was gathering pace.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot seized power in 1975 and held it until early 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion forced the Khmer Rouge into the remote jungles near the Thai border. Up to 2.2 million people, a third of this country’s population, had perished.
Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. It was only then that a war crimes tribunal became a serious prospect, leading to the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in 2006.
Senior Khmer Rouge leaders, including former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, his wife Ieng Thirith and former army chief Ta Mok, died behind bars, awaiting trial.
Only Khieu Samphan, 91, survives. He was convicted for genocide alongside Nuon Chea, known as Brother No. 2, and second in command of the Khmer Rouge, who died two years ago.
Another Khmer Rouge leader, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was also convicted of crimes against humanity. He ran the S21 death camp, where 24,000 people were processed for extermination in the Killing Fields. The court heard there were 196 such camps across the country.
Helen Jarvis, a former chief of the court’s Public Affairs and Victims Support Sections, said it took a “Herculean” effort to get the tribunal up and running amid wrangling with the U.N. and over funding issues.
“It was a very important historical event that needed to be done. It was long overdue to recognize the crimes that had taken place here, crimes against humanity, genocide. It needed to be done. I think it has been done,” she said.
Jarvis said the Extraordinary Chambers compared favorably with other tribunals, noting its $330 million cost to date is about a quarter of what was spent on the Rwandan war crimes tribunal and about half of the budget for the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The other tribunals were held under the auspices of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, with no local component and a long way from where the atrocities were committed. However, the Khmer Rouge court was a hybrid tribunal made up of local and international judges and it was held in Cambodia.
That created its own issues.
Prosecutors have been divided along international and Cambodian lines over whether to prosecute four lower-level Khmer Rouge officials, which means those cases cannot proceed.
“The most important thing is that the Cambodian people have been there, have been part of it right through. It wasn’t something done like former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, done outside the country,” Jarvis said.
“It was done in Cambodia with Cambodia’s full participation, a 500-seat courtroom which was full every day,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Future Form think tank in Phnom Penh said the tribunal had played an important role in Cambodia’s development.
“It was a success, it was necessary, it was an establishment of fact and truth and in some ways that will be studied by historians but more importantly by the Cambodian population,” he said.
Ou Virak also said the trials will provide contemporary and future historians with much greater insights into the regional political dynamics of the 1970s by major powers – the United States, the Soviet Union and China, which backed the Khmer Rouge.
“There are a lot more people now trying to understand the roles of different major powers, different parties back then including the involvement of America as well as China.
“Because of that I think there will be more interest in the tribunal, not because of historical atrocities, but more so because of its relevance to the current geo-political discussion,” he said.
Even if Khieu Samphan wins his appeal he will remain behind bars after exhausting the appeals process for his conviction for crimes against humanity.
Either way authorities can now plan commemorations for Pol Pot’s victims, who are expected to be cremated in accordance with traditional Buddhist rites, delivering some closure for one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
David Potter contributed to this report.