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Khieu Samphan
Khieu Samphan listens as prosecutors make their case against him earlier this week at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. ECCC

Khieu Samphan defence makes its case

The Khieu Samphan defence team let loose with both barrels as it began its closing statements today at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

International co-lawyer Arthur Vercken blasted what he characterized as the prosecution’s shoddily made case, as fellow international co-defender Anta Guisse took the prosecution to task on the issue of criminal intent – an element she asserted their allegations sorely lacked.

National defence attorney Kong Sam Onn closed the day defending the character of his client, a man he said “has been painted as a devil”.

Vercken’s fiery opening, which earned him warnings from the bench for condemning other parties, accused the prosecution of “changing their case” with their evolving description of the defendants’ alleged joint criminal enterprise, and slammed them for resorting to events that lay outside of the scope of the trial to make their case.

At one point, while questioning the quality of the prosecution’s arguments, Vercken even wondered aloud whether the Office of the Co-Prosecutor was staffed by “backpackers from riverside who donned purple robes”.

Guisse took a cooler-headed, though at times incredulous, approach to her dissection of Khieu Samphan’s criminal intent – or, in her estimation, the lack thereof.

The picture she painted of Cambodia just before the Khmer Rouge took power was one of starvation, economic depression and rampant destruction caused by widespread American bombing campaigns in the country’s east. It was a country in need of drastic measures to ensure its own survival, she argued.

“Seventy-five per cent of the livestock had been destroyed by the war. People had to plough the fields on their own, people who were undernourished,” she said, alluding to massive swaths of rice fields that were no long producing after the intense bombing. “That is the reality in Cambodia in 1975. Not the reality created by the Khmer Rouge, but the reality that existed when they took power.”

“In the closing order, the investigators are not afraid to say that the food penury was caused by self-imposed conditions. Seriously? In these conditions, of course, the Khmer Rouge took the methods that seemed to them the most obvious, given the situation, in order to feed the population,” Guisse continued. “And yes, indeed, emphasis had to be put on agriculture on the 80 per cent of land that was no longer harvested.”

Even if the methods proved to be unsuccessful, she argued, the intent was never to punish urbanites and elites, as the prosecution has long maintained.

“When we focus on the intent, whether they were successful or not, the aim was not to punish the new people. The aim was not to punish the city dwellers,” she said. “The aim at that time was to try to find a solution to the disastrous situation, the poisonous situation that they had inherited.”

Guisse also took aim at what she characterized as the myth of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s monolithic leadership, saying that zone commanders enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy, and were not firmly under the control of the party’s central leaders.

Sam Onn, for his part, closed the day with an examination of Samphan’s character and personal background, noting that in the 1960s, the former National Assemblyman enjoyed a sterling personal reputation among the public, as evidenced by his nickname, “Mr Clean”.

According to Sam Onn, Samphan had never hidden his communist leanings – beliefs he held in hopes of “find[ing] development and improvement for the livelihood of the people, and economic and social equality” – and even referenced a quote by Samphan himself defending his involvement in leftist politics.

“‘It’s true I was interested in communist doctrine. I studied communist doctrine,’” Sam Onn read. “‘Today you make a joke of it, but at that time, communism was a doctrine that gave hope to millions of youths across the world.’”

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