Nuon Chea did something unprecedented yesterday. While responding to civil parties’ questions at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the co-accused acknowledged a degree of responsibility as a leader of Democratic Kampuchea.
“I, of course, was one of the leaders, so I am not rejecting responsibility,” Chea said, answering a civil parties’ question about how the regime’s leaders could have led the country to such sorrow. “I share some responsibility. But I was not part of the executive branch.”
“I am bearing the responsibility from my heart,” he later told another civil party, who had lost his parents to the Khmer Rouge. “In my capacity as a member of Democratic Kampuchea, I accept my responsibility . . . I express my sincere condolences
to you for the loss of your family.”
Media outlets quickly heralded these statements as Chea’s first-ever admission of responsibility. Most tribunal lawyers and court observers agreed the statement was noteworthy but held somewhat more qualified views about both the uniqueness and the intent of Chea’s response.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said yesterday marked Nuon Chea’s first acknowledgment in court that he bore some responsibility, but he added that Chea had made similar statements outside of court.
“He’s been using this kind of language before,” Chhang said. “When you look at what he’s said in the past 15 years, in his conversations, in his interviews, he’s also said, ‘I was one of the leaders.’ It’s not a full apology.”
Nevertheless, he said, “I think it will help the prosecution a lot, because he came forward now to admit some responsibility.”
Heather Ryan, court monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said she would not interpret Chea’s statement as an “admission of responsibility of the crimes he is charged with . . . especially in light of his repeated statements of lack of knowledge or control over the situation”.
Civil party lead co-lawyer Elisabeth Simonneau-Fort noted that Chea had not clarified exactly what he acknowledged responsibility for.
Before mentioning responsibility, Chea had told the court: “I was assigned to be the deputy secretary of the communist party of the Democratic Kampuchea. I was in charge of propaganda and education within the party. And I was also in charge of the chairman of the Committee of the People’s Assembly during the Democratic Kampuchea. In the executive branch, I had no power whatsoever.”
Chea later added: “I feel remorseful for the crimes committed, intentionally or unintentionally, whether I had known about it or had not known about it.”
“I don’t know how he is responsible but not responsible,” Simonneau-Fort said. “But anyway, I think it’s the first step.”
Both she and Son Arun, Chea’s co-lawyer, said it was the unique structure of the victim impact hearings that began this week – during which civil parties asked direct questions of defendants – that prompted Chea to speak up.
“This time, they had the civil parties that asked him to answer,” said Arun, adding that Chea previously had no particular occasion to discuss his responsibility in court.
“I was surprised that he accepted to answer,” said Simonneau-Fort. “I thought that he would decline to answer. But the question of the victim is something that surprised them. I think that finally Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are surprised by the impact of the crimes, and they want to please the victims. It’s difficult for them to keep silent.”
Through the day, victims described starvation, the murder of family members, forced marriage, rape and torture.
Although Samphan referred to pages of notes during his responses, Chea, looking frail and standing supported by two court officers, spoke on an apparently impromptu basis by video link from his holding cell, from which he has followed most of the past months’ proceedings due to poor health.
Given his long absence from the trial chamber, his responding at all was surprising, said Panhavuth Long, program officer for the Cambodia Justice Initiative.
“I think that this is a good step, that he collaborates with the court,” said Panhavuth. “He’s admitting more responsibility than he ever had in the past.”
He and Simonneau-Fort said they hoped this week’s precedent would open the door for more engagement from both defendants in the future.
“I’m sure that their lawyers are not very happy,” Simonneau-Fort added, noting that Chea’s acknowledgment of responsibility strengthened the prosecution’s case.
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley said the Office of the Co-Prosecutors declined to comment.
According to Chhang: “When death is coming near, then you have to pray. I think that Chea is turning the last page of his life story, and there’s a feeling of regret, of apology.”
“I know the civil parties were very happy to have these words,” said Simonneau-Fort, who spoke with civil parties just after the two defendants spoke. “It is very important to have this kind of answer.”