Prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday requested the harshest possible sentence – life in prison – for co-defendants Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, saying there were “no grounds” for any lesser punishment.
In her request, national co-prosecutor Chea Leang maintained that the court must hold the two accountable for plunging Cambodia “into darkness and terror”, noting that any punishment would fall far short of the atrocities the pair stands accused of perpetrating against their own people.
“We do not ask for the killing of these accused,” Leang began, launching into a litany of Khmer Rouge crimes. “We do not ask you to condemn these men and their whole families out of their homes, to be forced to march for days at a time, to be left out in the wilderness to toil and starve in an organised system of enslavement, to be abused and beaten, to be lied to and deceived, to be bound and shot, to watch their children be torn apart and be smashed against trees and their loved ones perish without even the dignity of funeral rites, as the two accused and their co-perpetrators committed to the victims.
“Today, on behalf of the Cambodian people and the international community, we ask you for justice – justice for the victims who perished, and justice for the victims who survived today who had to live through such a vicious and cruel regime under the leadership of these two leaders,” she added, as Chea and Samphan calmly looked on.
As Leang went on to list what she characterised as the remorselessness and lies of the two defendants in the face of the evidence against them, she noted that “we see no grounds to reduce the penalty for the two accused”.
“The prosecution requests the TC [Trial Chamber] and your honours to punish Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan with life imprisonment, which is the only punishment that they deserve, and that is the international standard for these crimes as well,” she concluded.
For Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, the prosecution’s request for the full life sentence came as no surprise, in part because of the behaviour of the accused.
“Obviously, it’s the kind of case that a life sentence request makes sense for,” Ryan said. “And a lot of the time what goes into the sentencing request before the Trial Chamber is whether the accused cooperated or expressed remorse for the victims in any way. In this case, there was little cooperation and kind of ambiguous expressions of remorse.”
The request came after prosecutor William Smith spent the better part of the day buttressing the prosecution’s accusations that the two accused were fully aware of – and active participants in – the crimes taking place across the country during the time of their rule.
“Nuon Chea was an extremist in the 1970s, and he is the same extremist today,” Smith said, citing past statements by Chea showing a seeming lack of regard for human rights.
Smith also expressed incredulity at Samphan’s claims that he was unaware of what was happening around Cambodia, especially given that his predecessor as the head of an important office had himself been purged.
“Are we to believe that Khieu Samphan was the only person in Democratic Kampuchea who did not realise that people around him were constantly disappearing, never to be seen again?” he asked.
According to OSJI’s Ryan, the prosecution’s three-day closing statements succeeded in tying together the elements of a sprawling, and at times, nonlinear case.
“I was actually quite impressed with the closing of the prosecution, because I thought it was very factual and very effective,” she said. “For someone who didn’t sit through the entire trial, it was a good way of bringing together all the facts that didn’t always follow a straight narrative theme.”