The forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and other urban centers around Cambodia in 1975 was a critical turning point after which unimaginable suffering was endured by millions of people over the three years, eight months and 20 days the Khmer Rouge regime was in power, the Khmer Rouge tribunal heard Wednesday as closing statements in Case 002/01 began.
Civil party lawyers, representing 3,065 victims of the regime who applied to be a part of Case 002, became the first legal parties to argue that co-defendants and former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, 87, and Khieu Samphan, 82, are guilty of having made the decisions to forcibly evacuate and transfer people around the country in two distinct phases, as well as targeting ethnic minorities, forcing people to marry and ordering the execution of Lon Nol soldiers at a security center in Pursat province.
One by one, the lawyers delivered withering accounts of their clients’ suffering and placed the blame firmly at the defendants’ feet, accusing them of being behind, as lead co-lawyer Elisabeth Simmoneau-Fort phrased it, “events that defied the imagination and exceeded the bounds of reason and comprehension.”
“Millions of victims fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime, designed to impose a vision of utopian agrarian social order in Cambodia with record speed and remarkable disregard for [the] population,” said civil party lead co-lawyer Pich Ang in his opening remarks to a courtroom that was packed with civil parties, members of the public, students and monks.
“It was underpinned by a draconian policy intended to push an extremely marvelous leap forward. But the unforgiving application of these plans came at the price of massive deaths and profound suffering. The entire population was forced out of homes and into fields.
“Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, as the leaders of this, are responsible for these crimes…. They are guilty of crimes against humanity, murder and other inhumane acts, forced disappearances and acts against human dignity. They were part of a Joint Criminal Enterprise.”
Both defendants started the day in the courtroom, though Nuon Chea requested that he be taken to his holding cell after only 17 minutes of the hearing had elapsed. When the court’s camera cut to Khieu Samphan throughout the day, he was straight-faced.
Mr. Ang said written statements provided by 567 civil parties would have probative, or relevant, value to the Trial Chamber when it retires to consider its verdict. For those civil parties, the first of whom applied to be part of the case in September 2007, the adjudication has been a long time coming.
Civil party lawyer Hong Kim Suon said the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s (CPK) determination to “establish a rapid, socialist great leap forward” was carried out “by whatever means necessary” and with no regard to the dignity and human rights of the people it relied on to achieve its goal.
This included the establishment of cooperatives and work sites, the re-education of “bad elements” and, ultimately, the systematic extermination of people considered to be enemies, Mr. Kim Suon said. Specific groups such as Cham Muslims, Buddhist monks and the ethnic Vietnamese were targeted, as well as Lon Nol government civil servants, military personnel and their families.
But the cost of refashioning society was a heavy one, paid in a horrifying fashion by “new” and “base” people who toiled in work sites throughout the country.
“It was tantamount to an open air prison, where cadre got the children to spy on their own parents,” Mr. Kim Suon said.
“The Communist Party of Kampuchea used deprivation of food as a way of control. Sick people were not able to regain their strength and were denied food. People were obliged to work 15 to 19 hours a day. Other civil parties were forced to work immediately after childbirth. It was impossible to complain.”
Mr. Kim Suon said Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan “were not only informed about this policy, but designed and overviewed this policy as they regularly visited co-operatives and work sites.”
Khieu Samphan, he said, would tour and inspect rice fields and meet with the heads of cooperatives, while Nuon Chea went to the January 1 Dam, as it was known, “where he saw many people building and carrying earth.”
Nuon Chea’s only enquiries were related to construction though, not the health of the people laboring before him.
“Khieu Samphan and [late co-accused Ieng Sary] discussed mass evacuations with Pol Pot,” Mr. Kim Suon said.
The destruction of family units and cultural practices was widespread, he said, citing examples of Cham women forced to marry Buddhist Khmer men and Buddhist monks defrocked and forced to marry.
“The consummation of marriages had to be ensured. One civil party said surveillance teams of militiamen would come and observe [copulation.] People were warned they would be executed if they did not sleep together. Her hands were tied and she was eventually raped.”
Civil party lawyer Sam Sokon told the court that civil parties also recalled Khmer people being forced to execute their Vietnamese spouses.
“Vietnamese women were the targets of sexual rape as evidenced by the civil parties,” he said.
He said Khieu Samphan, as the head of state and a member of the party’s central committee, “participated in decision-making meetings,” at which “the smashing of the enemy had to be decided first.”
As then-Assembly President Nuon Chea “had the authority to make decisions in relation to policy as confirmed by various meetings’ minutes. These included re-education, bad elements and the killing of enemies.”
Co-lawyer Ty Srinna called on the court to punish Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, “who came to power not by the will of the people, but by force,” and whose justifications of the evacuation of Phnom Penh because of a possible U.S. bombardment were in no way reasonable or plausible.
“No testimony has ever mentioned that there was a bombardment of U.S. soldiers, except gunfire by the Khmer Rouge troops to force people out of the city and executions along the street,” she said.
“The CPK used the pretext of American bombardment as propaganda and as a pretext to implement radical and barbarous policies.”
Civil party lawyer Christine Martineau said the question of “why?” had been nagging her for the entirety of the trial, to the point that it “is almost an obsession.”
“That initial evacuation marked the dehumanization of these people,” she said.
When Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan answered questions put to them by civil parties during their trial, “you used their words and tried to give your regime a human face and to buttress the lines of your defense, which we already know.”
She said Khieu Samphan had posed “as a victim of the regime,” using the “preferred weapons of secrecy and deceit,” but that he and Nuon Chea were with Pol Pot until his final days and never distanced themselves from him. She said Nuon Chea was Pol Pot’s “alter ego.”
But she said the time for reckoning had come and urged the Trial Chamber to consider the civil parties’ suffering in their deliberations.
“In this trial, civil parties came with their dead. It is a symbolic return to life for the dead. History and justice are intertwined in crimes against humanity. Judges—you are going to fill a void by delivery of your judgment.”
But perhaps the most searing and emotional words of the day came from Ms. Simmoneau-Fort who, for the last time, reminded the judges of the importance of the decision ahead of them.
“I have thought of those who survived and took their seats behind us every day, who are advancing toward old age, like the defendants,” she said.
“I said to myself, ‘it is to them that we owe the greatest possible respect, deepest compassion and, most certainly, justice.”
“I think of all the people who came day after day, sometimes reduced to tears, anger, drowning under legal debate, but always expecting something they knew to be deeply important. I speak for them, seeking truth, and answers, and a meaning, however imperfect and incomplete.
“I speak for those who are dead and who, in a sense, have found new life through the words of others, like the civil parties. I hope this trial will return to the dead their full dignity.”
Ms. Simmoneau-Fort said the execution of Lon Nol government soldiers at Tuol Po Chrey, for instance, provides examples of the Khmer Rouge trademarks of “deceit, secrecy and extermination of the enemy.”
“Bodies were piled up without being buried, stacked up in a hideous human carnage. Bulldozers were brought in to hastily cover up this excessively visible evidence and the unbearable stink.”
In her parting message, Ms. Simmoneau-Fort said she wanted people to visualize men, women, children, the elderly and infirm tramping along Cambodia’s roads, hungry and exhausted, many of them walking to their deaths.
“Because that is the reality that underpins this trial and those two accused know it,” she said defiantly.
“They knew it from the very first day, because they organized it, they built it, they extended it across all the country solely to serve their glorious revolution…. I hope justice will condemn them for having done all of that.”
In terms of reparations, civil parties are calling for a government-recognized remembrance day, the establishment of a permanent memorial, rehabilitation services and documentation and education projects.
Co-prosecutors will begin making their closing statements today.