Co-defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – regarded as the most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge – yesterday maintained their absolute innocence for the crimes of the regime.
Delivering their closing statements at the tribunal during the last day of hearings in the first sub-trial and their final chance to defend themselves before the chamber delivers a verdict, the accused flatly denied responsibility for the criminal charges.
Chea did, however, in a similar fashion to responses made during victim impact hearings in May, acknowledge “moral responsibility” for the regime’s loss of control, despite saying he only learned of crimes towards the end of the Democratic Kampuchea period.
The 87-year-old, previously known as Brother No 2, distanced himself from those crimes, asserting the “tragedy” of the period resulted from acts committed by foreign traitors – be they errant zone leaders, lower-level cadre or foreign agents.
But while Chea spoke for more than 90 minutes, addressed specific policies and blamed “Vietnamese trickery” for the regime’s crimes, Samphan spoke as an already defeated man.
The former Khmer Rouge head of state focused on the idea that his guilt, at this point, was so assumed, that any further explanation would merely fall on deaf ears.
Despite benevolent intentions to bring prosperity and independence to Cambodia, Samphan said he had been cast as a “monster” and that his attempts to explain the truth had been greeted indifferently by the court.
Speaking in the courtroom – not in the holding cell where his ill health has kept him for much of the evidentiary hearings – Chea began yesterday’s proceedings by vigorously protesting his innocence.
“Through this trial it is clearly indicated that I was not engaged in any commission of the crimes alleged by the co-prosecutors,” he said.
“In short I am innocent in relation to those allegations.”
The first mini-trial in the severed case focuses on alleged crimes against humanity related to the forced movement of the population, first from Phnom Penh and later from other areas, and the execution of Khmer Republic soldiers at the Tuol Po Chrey execution site.
Chea stated that despite being the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea – in charge of education and political propaganda – he only educated cadre “to love, respect and serve the people and the country”.
“I never educated or instructed them to mistreat or kill people, to deprive them of food or to commit any genocide.”
Chea contended that despite the supposed exit of the Vietnamese communists from Cambodia in 1973, Vietnamese “secret agents” continued to infiltrate the party and the army around the country.
Blaming forced labour, starvation and arbitrary killings on these supposed agents – as such actions were “contradictory to the reason and policy of the CPK” – Chea placed responsibility for the regime’s crimes at the foot of Cambodia’s eastern neighbour.
“Based on these grounds, I can conclude that those acts were really the acts committed by Vietnam,” he said.
Regarding the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Chea challenged the prosecution’s idea that the CPK had set out to create a “slave state” from the outset and that the evacuation was somehow forced or violent.
“On the contrary, the CPK liberated the people from slavery,” he said, citing poverty, food shortages and corruption in the Lon Nol republic. “At that time, people understood the dangerous situation and the pressing need for the country. Especially, people supported and loved the revolution.”
Echoing his defence counsel’s arguments, Chea contended that the co-accused had not been afforded a fair trial.
“Our testimonies mean nothing, as you are clearly biased,” he said. “Nonetheless, I would like to express my deepest remorse and moral responsibility to all victims and Cambodian people who suffered under the Democratic Kampuchea regime.”
Chea concluded by asking to be acquitted of all charges.
When Samphan, 82, later took the floor, he chose to focus on his pre-1975 political convictions, namely aiming to build a peaceful, equitable and independent Cambodia.
His presumed guilt, Samphan continued, was based on the idea that he should have foreseen what would happen following the Khmer Rouge takeover or at least left them once the abusive nature of the regime became apparent.
“I would like to reiterate that I did not witness the things that could have happened in the days following the victory. And neither did I have any power to intervene.”
Almost 40 years on, it is easy to say that he should have known, but the reality was not that simple, Samphan said.
“Do you think that I did not try my best to understand the situation? Do you really think that that was what I wanted to happen to my people?”
To continue to try to explain what happened would be futile, he concluded.
“I have a strong feeling that no matter how hard I try to explain, they will only turn their deaf ears at me. They will still not pay attention to what I have to say. Instead I feel that the more I speak, the more vengeance they have [against me].
“Unfortunately, it is clear that everyone wants only one thing from me … that is my admission of guilt.… If I remain silent, I can maintain my honour and dignity.”
At the court, civil parties and those who had come to watch proceedings expressed their disbelief and anger at the lack of admission of guilt on the part of the accused.
Bin Sivlar, a 55-year-old from Pursat, said she was evacuated to Battambang and later Poipet during the regime, losing 11 family members to starvation and execution.
“I am furious with Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan and their defence lawyers who seem very proud to claim their innocence. They are saying anything to be let off the charges,” she said.
“This is the ECCC, but if they were outside the court I would chop them into pieces.”
Touch Sreyrun, 56, said Nuon Chea’s claim yesterday that people were offered plenty of food in cooperatives was patently false.
“I was very angry to hear what Nuon Chea said today. I was asked to dig my own grave because my mother gave me a packet of salt.”
Saum Rithy, a 60-year-old civil party, said, however, that the court would see through the “deceptive” nature of the defendants.
“The most important thing is that they base their judgment on the evidence and testimony of surviving witnesses.… I believe that the court can still find justice for me and for other victims.”
Panhavuth Long, program officer at the Cambodia Justice Initiative, said the accused’s strategy to blame others and aim to discredit the court was not surprising.
What would be crucial, Panhavuth added, was whether Chea’s “moral apology” would be a mitigating factor in the judges’ decision.
“[But] we can see when Duch finally apologised [and cooperated], he did not receive a mitigating sentence from the ECCC. That’s why Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan chose not to cooperate and not to talk freely,” he said.
“Sometimes they apologise, but when they apologise they always put the blame on someone else.”
A number of trial participants, including most recently the Nuon Chea defence, have alleged the current government has interfered in the trial, and failed to allow possible key witnesses, such as National Assembly president Heng Samrin, to take the stand.
Hun Many, recently elected lawmaker and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, visited the court yesterday and was questioned about such allegations.
“I do believe that regardless of the allegations and the discussion through the media that I have seen … I still firmly believe that the ECCC has been a success,” he said, adding that he did not have enough information to answer questions that would be better put to government representatives.
After 222 days of hearings, Cambodia will now await a judgment from the trial chamber that is expected in the first half of next year.
A trial management meeting will be held in December to discuss where the court will go next, with many questioning whether future sub-trials in case 002 will ever see the light of the chamber given budget woes and the advanced age of the accused.
Prosecutor William Smith said at a press conference after the hearing that the prosecution believes it is important that serious charges, such as the genocide of the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese and the actions of security centres across the country are addressed.