On December 19th a former leader of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime told a court that he and his comrades were not “bad people,” denying responsibility for the deaths of 1.7 million people during the Khmer Rouge’s 1970s rule. He blamed Vietnam for any atrocities.
“Nuon Chea’s defiant statements came as a UN-backed tribunal began questioning him and two other Khmer Rouge leaders in court for the first time on Monday, December 19th. Opening statements in the long-awaited trial began in late November. This week the court focuses on charges involving forced movement of people and crimes against humanity. After this week the trial will resume in 2012.”
After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they began moving an estimated 1 million people – even hospital patients – from the capital into the countryside to create a communist agrarian utopia.
After a court clerk read information about the background of the Khmer Rouge and the three defendants – Nuon Chea, Leng Sary, and Khieu Samphan – Nuon Chea defended the notoriously brutal former movement. He was the Number Two leader behind the late Pol Pot. Chea said:
“I don’t want the next generation to misunderstand history. I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are criminals and bad people. Nothing is true about that.”
As the former Brother Number Two of the Khmer Rouge, under his leadership two million Cambodian people died in the 1970s. His comment came as part of a protracted history lesson to the students, monks, and victims who gathered at a specially built courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital.”
In a speech lasting more than an hour Nuon Chea, laid the blame for the war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, with Cambodia’s neighbour Vietnam.
In years preceding the Khmer Rouge’s April 1975 “liberation” of Phnom Penh, Nuon Chea said the Vietnamese operated a “puppet” movement posing as a Cambodian communist party.
The trial of the three most senior surviving leaders of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime began in November. Nuon Chea was the right-hand man of the Maoist regime’s supreme leader Pol Pot, who died of natural causes in 1998.
The former leaders, now in their eighties, face charges including genocide and crimes against humanity. The Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979, and the process of trying its senior figures has taken many years. In the mid 1990s, Cambodia originally asked the United Nations and the international community to set up a tribunal to investigate the genocide.
A joint tribunal was finally established in 2006 following long drawn-out negotiations between the Phnom Penh government and the UN – but to date there is only one conviction – Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch. Kaing Guek Eav was in charge of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
The survivors of the Khmer Rouge are frail and elderly. Some former guards and regime officials came to the trial to give evidence. Others came to simply see the last chapter of the nightmare which claimed the lives of nearly two million people.
The UN’s British chief prosecutor, Andrew Cayley, said the proceedings would send a strong message around the world: “If you lead a country into this kind of disaster the past will catch up with you.”
The trial is a joint enterprise between the UN and Cambodia and it is heavily criticized. The Khmer Rouge killed Theary Seng’s parents and he said “putting three people on trial for the deaths of 1.7 million people simply isn’t enough”.
As well as Nuon Chea, the regime’s former head-of-state – Khieu Samphan – and Leng Sary – foreign minister and international face of the organization – deny the charges they face. Declared unfit due to health issues Leng Thirith – the former social affairs minister – will not go on trial with them.
Prosecutors told the tribunal that the Cambodian people were in a “pitiful state” and their suffering “was absolute” during the Khmer Rouge regime’s rule. Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, led the Khmer Rouge and turned Cambodia into a massive slave camp, reducing an entire nation into prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief to the present day”, said UN co-prosecutor Chea Leang.
The regime attempted to create an ideal communist society by forcing city residents to work as peasants in the countryside, and by purging intellectuals, middle class people, and any supposed enemies of the state. About 1.7 million people – almost one-third of the population – were murdered, or died of over-work, starvation, or torture from 1975 to 1979.
“Hundreds of people – including monks, students, regime survivors, and former cadres – packed the court’s public gallery for the first of four days of opening statements in the landmark case. I feel very happy. I came here because I want to know the story and how it could have happened,” 75-year-old farmer Sao Kuon, who lost 11 relatives under the Khmer Rouge, told the AFP news agency.
Pol Pot led the Maoist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. He abolished religion, schools, and currency in effort to create agrarian utopia. Two million people died of starvation, overwork, or by execution. The Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge during an invasion in 1979. Pol Pot fled and remained free until 1997 – he was imprisoned and died of natural causes a year later before facing a full trial for his crimes.
The trial process includes several mini-trials, with the first hearing set to judge on the offence of enforced removal of people from the cities. “The BBC’s Guy De Launey in Phnom Penh says the defendants are old and frail, and concern that they might die has forced the tribunal to split the cases in the hope of gaining at least one conviction. But it is unclear how much the court will hear from the three accused.
Leng Sary has said he does not intend to testify. Nuon Chea walked out of an earlier hearing. The only senior Khmer Rouge figure to be convicted so far is Kaing Guek Eav – better known as Comrade Duch. He was head of the notorious Tuol Sleng Prison – a torture facility where he presided over the torture and murder of thousands of people.”