“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea momentarily broke his silence during the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday to pose two questions to veteran journalist and witness Elizabeth Becker regarding the United States’ criminal role in the historic destruction of Cambodia.
Choosing to leave his holding cell for a rare appearance, the 88-year-old specifically questioned Becker about Operation Freedom Deal, an aerial campaign waged in Cambodia from 1970-73.
“[The United States] engaged in bombardment for 200 days and nights . . . and as a result, many innocent Cambodian people died, and [there was] destruction of the houses, rice fields and pagodas,” Chea said. “I’d like for you, the expert, to give us the reason for that bombardment.”
Becker answered, saying that the bombings were the US’ show of support to Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic regime against the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese.
“The bombardment . . . was a result of the fear at that stage that the Khmer Republic would lose and the belief by . . . the administration of Richard Nixon that by bombing, the Khmer Rouge would come to the negotiation table – and that failed.”
The bombings subsequently ended in August 15, 1973, after the US Supreme Court upheld a law passed by Congress to end the operation because “they didn’t want any more reports of innocent Cambodians being killed”, Becker added.
Chea then went on to ask his second question.
“Is it your opinion that the US government was solely responsible for the tragedy that it inflicted upon the Cambodian people?”
To which Becker, who authored the 1986 book When the War Was Over, replied that though the issue remains a bone of contention, to her, the US is fully responsible for the immensely destructive attacks on the Kingdom.
Following the questions, Chea’s lawyer Victor Koppe continued cross-examining Becker about a “secret” civil war within Cambodia after 1975 that was behind the mass carnage in Democratic Kampuchea – a narrative that the defence has sought to put forward to support the accused’s claims.
Koppe read short passages from an interview by Thet Sambath, a journalist who co-wrote the book Behind the Killing Fields, meant to reinforce his questioning. He was prevented from pursuing the line, however, by multiple objections from the prosecution and civil parties accusing him of only citing excerpts allegedly proving the presence of a civil war.
The chamber sustained the objections, with judge Claudia Fenz saying in one instance that it “share[d] the prosecution’s concern about what appears to be a pattern of selectively misrepresenting documents and asking witnesses and experts to comment on it”.
While it didn’t rise to the level of incidents seen in the previous Case 002/01, in which defence teams saw their microphones cut off midsentence, Panhavuth Long, a program officer with the Cambodian Justice Initiative, reminded the court that the defence has a right to pursue certain lines of questioning.
“The defence has to have enough opportunity to present evidence that’s relevant to the case to prove guilt and element of crimes,” Long said. “Judges need to reassess between ensuring an expedient trial and achieving a criminal judgement.”
Though some of her testimony rehashed earlier responses, Becker also gave evidence on co-defendant Khieu Samphan’s role as the “face of the regime”, in which he wielded significant power.
“He was the liaison for Sihanouk and what became the leadership of the Democratic Kampuchea,” she said. “He took foreign trips as head of state and met delegations. He was one of the few Democratic Kampuchea leaders who were able to travel outside of the country.”
Becker’s testimony concluded yesterday, and the tribunal will resume proceedings today.