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Journalist Asks to Testify at Khmer Rouge Tribunal

FILE - Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime hold a protest to demand individual reparations in front of an entrance to the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal as a hearing is held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 17, 2014.

A Cambodian documentary journalist says he wants to testify at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, where two former senior leaders of the group are facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber is set to decide soon whether Thet Sambath, who co-produced the award-winning documentary "Enemies of the People," can testify at the behest of Nuon Chea’s defense team to bolster its appeal of a guilty verdict in the first of two trial phases.

In an interview with VOA from his home in Massachusetts, Thet Sambath said his research was always meant to uncover complicated truths about the Khmer Rouge and its secretive leaders.

“If the court agrees, and if the court openly gives me freedom, I’ll do it,” he said. “If it restricts my right to speak to only the assigned issue, I can’t do it.”

He also alleged that the court had not allowed free testimony from previous witnesses.

Thet Sambath spent 10 years traveling to former Khmer Rouge strongholds, talking to former cadres and leaders, in particular the reclusive Nuon Chea, who was later arrested and indicted by the tribunal.

He said the charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for killings at Tuol Por Chrey in Pursat province, which were part of their initial trial, were not accurate.

Court 'internal problems' cited

“I have enough evidence, and I consider the trial of the case wrong,” he said. “I do not support Nuon Chea or Khieu Samphan or Pol Pot,” he added. But he said the court’s “internal problems” and the fact that Khmer Rouge crimes were “a sensitive issue for the current government” put the truth at risk.

He also alleged that the court had not asked hard questions of perpetrators or their leaders, some of whom remain in the government, he said. That, he said, relegated this to a “revenge trial."

A tribunal spokesman said the Supreme Court would determine whether Thet Sambath will testify or not, based on the law. Meanwhile, the Trial Chamber is set to begin hearings again Jan. 8 on the second and final phase of the trial for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.

Nuon Chea’s defense team hopes such testimony will overturn his life sentence, handed down from the first phase of the trial.

“We are waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court Chamber on our request to summon Thet Sambath in the appeals hearing,” said Victor Koppe, an international member of the defense. "Of particular importance are Thet Sambath’s statements that Nuon Chea was not involved with killings at Tuol Por Chrey."

Responsibility as leader

But Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and longtime Cambodia researcher, said Nuon Chea acted as the captain of a ship and was therefore responsible for what happened.

“And he says, 'OK, you know these pirates over here —,they did these things I didn’t know about,' ” Maguire said. “It doesn’t matter. Ultimate responsibility goes to the leader.”

Legal principles set in place since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials have put responsibility on leaders, not just those who directly committed atrocities, he said. “Instead of just trying the guy who had blood on his hands, who actually did the killing, you go up the chain of command and you hold the leader who formulated the policy criminally responsible.”

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.

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