Lead co-prosecutor Chea Leang delivered the opening salvo yesterday in her team’s closing arguments at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, taking co-accused Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea to task over the brutal evacuation of Phnom Penh and the “utterly inhumane” population movements that followed.
Over the course of several hours of arguments, at times interspersed with photos and videos, Leang offered an exhaustive rundown of the events of April 17, 1975 – the day Phnom Penh fell and was subsequently emptied by the Khmer Rouge.
The statement borrowed extensively from testimony given by American journalist Sydney Schanberg, who witnessed the city’s fall, and systematically sought to refute the defence’s position that Phnom Penh’s evacuation was an impromptu humanitarian effort.
It was, she argued, a meticulously planned attempt to weed out Lon Nol regime officials and to “suppress and subjugate the urban population”.
Leang dismissed claims by the defence that the population was moved to spare it from an imminent American bombing, noting that the Khmer Rouge would not have immediately moved its leadership into a city about to be bombarded.
“These crimes were not accidental,” she said, maintaining instead that the forced evacuation was “implemented by a highly hierarchical” command structure.
“The evidence demonstrates that on April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers were neither out of control nor unruly,” she continued. “Instead they were disciplined and organised, and they followed their chain of command.”
Citing the capture and release of Schanberg and a handful of other foreigners, Leang noted that the Khmer Rouge rank and file were acting on the orders of their superiors when they singled out the soldiers of Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic regime.
“They sought and obtained the orders of their superiors as to what to do with the foreigners,” Leang said. “Mr Schanberg also testified that while he and the other foreigners were released, the Khmer Republic military men that the Khmer Rouge had captured were not released.”
Leang also went on to describe the Khmer Rouge’s demand that the French Embassy turn over Cambodians seeking refuge there – especially members of the former regime – as evidence of “organised and systematic searches for Khmer Republic officials who were destined for execution”.
“The common theme that runs through these events is the use of extreme violence against a civilian population,” she continued, referring to the “inhumane conditions” of the forced transfer. “Human suffering on an extraordinary scale was an inevitable result.”
“I ask your honours, would any Cambodian willingly leave their family by the roadside to die?” Leang asked. “That is what the Khmer Rouge asked our people to do.”