FORMER Khmer Rouge Brother Number 2 Nuon Chea walked out of proceedings yesterday at Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal during the first day of the court’s trial against him and three other senior KR leaders.
The hearing marked the first day of a trial that has long been described as the court’s most important case, one that brings together a group of former cadres accused of presiding over the deaths of as many as 2.2 million Cambodians: Nuon Chea, former KR head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, social action minister Ieng Thirith. Dignitaries, victims and other visitors packed the public gallery at the tribunal yesterday, the first time that all four accused have been brought together in the courtroom.
Four days of hearings on procedural matters, including witness lists and the statutes of limitations for the alleged crimes, are scheduled for this week.
Further hearings, including witness testimony, are not expected until August or September.
Nonetheless, yesterday’s proceedings were not without drama, as Nuon Chea walked out after claiming the tribunal was biased against him.
The 84-year-old and his lawyers complained that the court’s Trial Chamber had declined to accept their list of proposed witnesses, and that the judicial investigation in the case had ignored potentially exculpatory evidence.
“My fellow Cambodian citizens, inside and outside Cambodia, I am not happy with this hearing, and I would like to allow my co-counsels to explain the reasons behind this,” Nuon Chea said.
He donned his trademark dark sunglasses during the hearing to block out the glare of the lights in the courtroom, and wore a woolen ski cap because, his counsel explained, he was “affected by the circulation of the air-conditioning without wearing it”.
Taking over for Nuon Chea, Dutch defence lawyer Michiel Pestman said the Case 002 investigation had been “unfair” and called for the proceedings to be “terminated”.
“The sole purpose of the judicial investigation was to collect evidence against our client, and to ignore all the evidence that could put his role in the Khmer Rouge years in a different, more positive light,” Pestman said.
Pestman referenced the controversy over the court’s third and fourth cases, in which the investigating judges have apparently sabotaged the investigat-ions amid opposition to the cases by the Cambodian government.
The government, he said, had “failed to co-operate” with the court, noting that a number of high-level members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had ignored summonses to provide evidence in the case.
“Our client does not want to longer honour these proceedings with his presence unless his objections and all of his witnesses … are put on the agenda, as the rules of this court prescribe,” Pestman said, adding that Nuon Chea would boycott the hearings until the Trial Chamber judges were “willing to discuss his objections and all of his witnesses”.
“The people of Cambodia deserve a fair trial, a proper trial, aimed at establishing the truth and not simply at rubber-stamping history books written in Vietnam or America,” Pestman said.
Nuon Chea subsequently exited the courtroom with assistance from security guards, saying he would “prepare myself to return if your honours will consider my request to be put for discussion before the general public in the open court”.
Pestman said outside the courtroom that the defence team hoped to provide the “proper context” to the case by examining the roles of foreign powers, including the US and Vietnam, in fuelling conflict in Cambodia.
Under the agreement between Cambodia and the UN establishing the tribunal, it can prosecute only crimes that occurred between 1975 and 1979.
Pestman said, however, that looking exclusively at this period in attempting to analyse the reign of the Khmer Rouge would be like “reading one page out of a history book and tearing out all the others”.
Former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger, an architect of the US bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s, is just one name on the Nuon Chea team’s list of roughly 300 proposed witnesses, the vast majority of whom had been rejected, Pestman said.
Defence lawyers in Case 002 have also called for the testimony of King Father Norodom Sihanouk and six senior government officials including National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim, all of whom have apparently ignored summonses issued by the tribunal.
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley countered that all parties had had proposed investigative requests rejected by judges at the court, and that allegations of political interference, rather than being ignored, had been subject to “extensive, public, written litigation”.
The court was scheduled to further discuss proposed witness lists on Thursday, he said.
“Let us be absolutely clear that many of the reasons the defence counsel have given for their client walking out this morning, and which have been received by the public, are simply not true,” Cayley said.
“All the parties, because of the public interest in this case, are obliged to represent things properly before the Trial Chamber so that ideas don’t develop outside this courtroom that may be destructive to the processes that are going on here.”
A significant portion of yesterday’s session was devoted to the question of whether Ieng Sary’s conviction in absentia at the 1979 People’s Revolutionary Tribunal, convened shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, could constitute double jeopardy in the case.
The court’s Pre-Trial Chamber has already ruled that the 1979 proceedings did not meet basic legal standards and are no bar to Ieng Sary’s current prosecution, though this ruling is not binding on the Trial Chamber.
As in previous hearings, concerns about the elderly suspects’ health also came to the fore.
Nuon Chea was followed in exiting the courtroom by Ieng Thirith, who complained of ill health and at one point during the morning session appeared to have fallen asleep. Ieng Sary, who has complained of back pain and urological problems, left during the afternoon.
Hearings at the tribunal are set to resume today, with discussions of the statutes of limitations on crimes alleged in the indictment on the agenda.