Khmer Rouge tribunal judges were urged yesterday not to put “communism on trial” and warned not to be ruled by emotions, as Nuon Chea’s defence team concluded its closing arguments.
Lawyers for the former Brother Number Two on Friday lashed out at what they called the court’s inherent bias and the peddling of a simplistic, good-versus-evil narrative. Yesterday they argued a dispassionate look at the evidence could not possibly find Nuon Chea guilty of crimes against humanity, including genocide.
Defence lawyer Doreen Chen criticised the “cherry-picking” of evidence by the prosecution, stating the alleged crimes did not occur in a “historical vacuum”.
“As tempting as it may be to put communism on trial,” she said, “that is well outside the scope of this court”.
The prosecution, she added, had argued the Khmer Rouge had a policy to “enslave the population through collectivisation”, and “treated their own people as expendable commodities” at worksites for dams, canals and farms.
“At best, this reveals an ignorance of socialism. At worst, a deep bias against it,” she said.
Communists “believe the biggest threat to [the people] is social injustice, and they believe this injustice is caused by private ownership of the means of production,” Chen said.
The Khmer Rouge transferred private ownership to the collective “not to enslave the people, but to liberate and empower them”.
Further, she argued, when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the country was in dire straits and “on the brink of starvation” after a devastating US bombing campaign.
“The [Communist Party of Kampuchea’s] postwar mission naturally focused on rebuilding and defending the country.
“The primary purpose for rice production was to feed the people, not to export or accelerate industrialisation.”
Drastic measures – such as the mass mobilisation of the population and rationing of food – were staple features of postwar countries, and the Khmer Rouge policies aimed to bring the people’s “temporary” hardship to an end, she said.
Turning to one of the most emotionally charged topics of the trial, Chen stressed there was no policy of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge. It was instead “a figment of the co-prosecutors’ imagination”.
On paper, the Khmer Rouge required two things for marriage – consent of the couple and of the collective. Chen added plans to increase the population to 15 million was a normal policy, similar to those of other nations.
“By portraying this normal regulation of marriage as a breeding programme, they are here using drama and emotion to hide the fact that there is no evidence of a forced marriage policy,” Chen said.
She drew on the findings of the two expert witnesses on the topic – Peg LeVine and Kasumi Nakagawa – who found there was no evidence to suggest a nationwide policy of forced marriage.
Chen slammed a potentially incriminating quotation from Nuon Chea as unverifiable, as there was no voice or video recording to confirm it.
“The man always wants to choose beautiful girl, so that’s why we forced them to get married and Angkar, [The Organisation] chose the wife”, Chea is alleged to have said.
“This quote, even if it were something Nuon Chea said, proves absolutely nothing,” she said, adding it doesn’t establish his participation in a forced marriage policy.
She said the fact that some couples feared they would be killed for refusing a match did not mean there was an actual policy to do so. “The mere feeling,” Chen said, does not prove “that the person was forced to act”.
“Please resist the pressure of your emotions and that of others . . . please ignore the lobbying you are under from activists,” Chen said, highlighting a flurry of global attention that sexual-assault funding and research has stirred.
Taking the baton from Chen, defence lawyer Liv Sovanna argued that isolated incidents of rape connected to coerced marriages did not equate to a policy encouraging sexual violence.
“Around the world, and even within the UN, some police officers do commit sexual offences against people instead of fulfilling their role as protectors,” Sovanna said. “However, this would never be interpreted as following a policy of sexual violence.”
He characterised rapes as “unfortunate, but isolated incidents” that were meted out by husbands or local authorities violating the Khmer Rouge’s principles, not by the leadership or Nuon Chea himself.
Defence lawyer Victor Koppe, addressing the contentious charge of genocide, said people from all ethnicities were treated equally and there was no intent to destroy any cultural group or strive for a “pure” Khmer race.
Reports of Cham Muslims being forced to cut their hair, eat pork and burn Qurans were either spouted by unreliable witnesses or were due to restrictions applied to the whole population, he said.
His colleagues went on to argue other groups – the Vietnamese, Buddhists and former Lon Nol soldiers – were not victims of genocide or extermination. Those who were killed, the defence argued, had committed individual crimes.
In September 1978, just months before the fall of the regime to a Vietnamese-sponsored force, the Khmer Rouge published an issue of Revolutionary Flag magazine with the line: “Cambodia holds out its hand in peace to Vietnamese people”.
“Would you imagine Adolf Hitler using such terms when referring to Jews?” Koppe asked. “The answer, obviously, is no.”
“It is very tempting to create a legacy as the chamber that established the Cambodian genocide,” Koppe said, warning judges not to succumb to that temptation.
The prosecution, he said, had wound itself into a contradictory bind by alleging the regime both systematically killed people from target groups – a large proportion of the country – and used forced marriages to bolster the population.
“These two objectives, Mr President, are irreconcilable,” Koppe said. “The truth cannot go both ways.”