Cambodia’s war crimes court heard the opening statements in the long-awaited trial of three surviving Khmer Rouge leaders this week, with the prosecution outlining what it says is a solid case against the accused and the defendants dismissing the allegations as “untrue” and “a fairytale”.
By Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley set the tone when he described Cambodia’s experience under the Khmer Rouge – when the nation was known as Democratic Kampuchea – as the most extreme human political catastrophe in two millennia.
“One in four Cambodians perished under Democratic Kampuchea … a loss of life unknown to any nation since the slaughter of all adult men and the enslavement of the women and children of the island of Milos by the Athenian state 2,400 years ago,” Cayley told the court.
“When judged in relative terms by the proportion of a national population who died or were murdered, the scope of the human catastrophe unleashed by these accused on this country has no parallel in the modern era,” he said.
And, he continued, the court should understand that the criminality “was not accidental, nor did it just happen”. Instead, said Cayley, it had been planned long before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975.
“The accused … are thieves of time and common murderers of an entire generation of Cambodians,” said Cayley, his voice cracking with emotion as he closed his remarks. “They robbed decades of development and prosperity from this country. They left gaping holes in every Cambodian family. They removed all breath from notions such as law and civilized behaviour.”
The tribunal estimates as many as 2.2 million people died under the ultra-Maoist movement’s three years, eight months and 20 days rule, which ended on 7 January 1979 when a combined force of Khmer Rouge defectors backed by Vietnamese troops pushed Pol Pot’s government from power.
And although none of the defendants had murdered people themselves, said Cayley, “each of them, either alone or together with others long dead, (devised policies) that unleashed an ocean of blood in this country”.
The three defendants are: Nuon Chea, 85, known as Brother Number Two, and considered as the movement’s chief ideologue; Khieu Samphan, 80, who was head of state; and Ieng Sary, 86, who was the foreign minister.
The octogenarians are effectively on trial for devising the policies that led to so many deaths from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.
The prosecution said the evidence would show the defendants knew full well what was happening on the ground. Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang said those Khmer Rouge cadres who tortured and killed had done so “strictly within the orders and policies of the accused”.
“These accused not only (ordered the actions) but were kept informed of conditions on the ground by regular visits and a system for reporting,” she said.
Nuon Chea “untrue”
The prosecution closed its opening arguments on midday Tuesday. After that it was the turn of the accused and their defence teams to speak. As expected they roundly condemned the prosecution’s case, and both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea took the opportunity to paint themselves as patriots.
Nuon Chea, who gave numerous political speeches to cadres during the 1960s and 1970s, was on form in court with his anti-Vietnamese rhetoric that mixed historical antagonism and paranoia in equal measure.
In his 90-minute address, a surprisingly energetic Nuon Chea said the prosecution’s case against him was “untrue”, and blamed “foreign powers” for the ills of his regime’s rule.
“The Vietnamese factor is the main factor that caused confusion in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979,” he said, adding that Vietnam had long sought to annex the country and exterminate the Cambodian people.
“I had to leave my family to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the forces and the thieves who wished to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the world,” he said of his motivations.
Nuon Chea also complained that the court’s limitation of its mandate to the days the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia (17 April 1975 to 7 January 1979) was “unfair … since only certain facts are to be adjudicated”.
“Only the body of the crocodile is to be discussed, not its head or tail, which are the important parts of its daily activities,” Nuon Chea said by way of analogy. “The root causes and its consequences – all that happened pre-1975 and post-1979 – are being ignored.”
There was no mention of regret in his speech. Instead Nuon Chea focused on the rivalries and bitter mistrust between the communist parties of Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s, and the decisions rendered by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, of which he was the deputy, on its strategic direction.
But it provided an insight into the xenophobic message Nuon Chea and others delivered to the Khmer Rouge cadres decades ago, a message that contributed to the paranoia that eventually brought down the revolution from within as the leaders sought to unmask and kill the perceived enemies they thought had riddled the movement’s ranks.
Khieu Samphan “fairytale”
Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, spoke for an hour on Wednesday. The prosecution’s assertions against him were a “fairytale”, “monumentally biased” and showed that they “want my head on a block”.
Khieu Samphan scolded the prosecutors for “guesswork”, “peremptory claims” and “generalizations”. And he roundly rejected their “absurd” stance that his repeated visits to vast agricultural worksites where tens of thousands died meant he knew of massive abuses at the grassroots level.
“Do you really think … that when I visited these worksites alone or when accompanied by the king, workers were being murdered in front of us with hoes or bullets in the back of the neck?” he asked.
Khieu Samphan also took umbrage with the assertion that he was part of a joint criminal enterprise by virtue of his role as head of state. He said the position, which he had assumed after the 1976 resignation of former King Norodom Sihanouk, who had allied himself with the Khmer Rouge six years earlier, had no power, and he asked why the court had not brought his predecessor – Sihanouk – into the dock as well.
Khieu Samphan also explained his motivation for joining the communist party while studying for his doctorate in economics in Paris in the 1950s. It was, he said, prompted by his desire to ensure “the best experience for my country”.
‘Today you may see (communism) as a joke. However I shall remind you that at that time communism was the one movement that gave hope to millions of youths around the world,” he said.
Khieu Samphan also talked about the huge and illegal aerial bombing campaign of Cambodia by the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Could you imagine what my country faced after such a bloody killing?” he asked the prosecutors. “Whether you like it or not, the majority of the Cambodian people gave their support to us to oppose the Lon Nol regime (then in power).”
And in a suitably flamboyant finish, Khieu Samphan’s international lawyer, French national Jacques Verges, described the prosecution’s case as like “a novel by Alexandre Dumas” (who authored the Three Musketeers) and quoted the 18th century diplomat Talleyrand when he took aim at the prosecutors:
“Everything that is excessive is vain, and everything you said is excessive.”
Ieng Sary – no pardon
For his part a wheelchair-bound Ieng Sary spoke for just a few minutes to outline his displeasure at the court’s refusal to recognize the royal pardon and amnesty he had received in 1996 from the Cambodian government in order to get him and thousands of his followers to defect.
Ieng Sary’s defection was a critical moment in the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, which disappeared three years later, two decades after being driven out of Phnom Penh, a victim of the end of the Cold War and its associated superpower rivalries.
“Though I disagree with the Trial Chamber’s decision, I respect the Trial Chamber’s authority in rendering it,” Ieng Sary told the court Wednesday, adding that he would continue to participate in hearings, but would not testify.
The defendants’ ages and health, and the complexity of the case against them, led the court to divide the case into a series of mini-trials, of which this is the first.
The first mini-trial will hear evidence surrounding the forced movement of population as a crime against humanity. The prosecution will argue that two instances of forced evacuations caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Cambodians.
The broader crimes of genocide and war crimes, as well as the other crimes contained under the charge of crimes against humanity – including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, forced marriage and torture – will be heard later.
The prosecution has outlined five main areas of criminal behaviour against the accused: the forced movement to rural areas of people living in towns and cities; the enslavement of the population; the use of violence and security centres to eradicate perceived enemies; targeting certain groups such as Buddhist monks, Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese who were seen as threats; and forcibly marrying people in order to increase the population to 20-30 million.
In its first case the court last year sentenced the Khmer Rouge’s security chief, Comrade Duch, to 30 years after finding him guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of more than 12,000 people. Duch appealed his conviction, and his verdict will be handed down on February 3 next year.