In Final Stand at Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Khieu Samphan Remains Defiant

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan remained defiant in his final stand in court on Friday, claiming accusations that his regime exterminated its own people were false Vietnamese propaganda.

In the final day of closing statements, Khieu Samphan and the regime’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea—who are both on trial for crimes against humanity and genocide—were offered one last chance to address the tribunal.

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Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan at the tribunal in Phnom Penh earlier this month. (ECCC)

While Nuon Chea, 90, declined to speak, Khieu Samphan, 85, delivered a 30-minute address in which he maintained he was not a murderer. It was likely the final time his voice will be heard in public.

“This is an opportunity for me to answer the questions posed by civil parties in this case. I know that they really suffered. I also heard when they spoke to me, sometimes referring to me as a murderer,” he said. “How could it be otherwise? Since this court’s inception it has done everything in order to let you, the civil parties, refer to me as someone who has the responsibility for all the sufferings.”

“But the term ‘murderer’—I categorically reject it,” he declared.

Not only was he not a direct murderer, Khieu Samphan claimed he was oblivious to the horrors to which the Cambodian people were being subjected. Most historians estimate that between 1.7 and 2 million people perished during the Pol Pot regime because of overwork, starvation, illness and execution.

“I did not know about these issues during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. I discovered much more about these topics only after the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and in these hearings,” he said.

“It is therefore impossible for me to explain the reasons for all the sufferings.”

Theories about Khmer Rouge mass killings were simply Vietnamese conspiracies, he said.

“The Communist Party of Kampuchea leaders did not exterminate our people. What was the interest in doing so?” he asked. “The manipulation of Vietnam saying it was self-genocide is in fact Vietnamese propaganda.”

The Khmer Rouge had hoped to improve the lives of the Cambodian people, Khieu Samphan claimed.

“The wish of the Communist Party of Kampuchea at the time was not to subject the population to slavery for the sole benefit of Mr. Pol Pot. However, that is exactly the fable told by the co-prosecutors. That is wrong,” he said.

“The leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea hoped to transform our country into a modern agricultural country that would gradually develop industries. That is for the people. People would have an abundance of food to eat and to live better and better,” he said.

“That is the truth.”

Khieu Samphan said he believed the purpose of the Vietnamese “propaganda” was to advance the neighboring state’s expansionist plans into Cambodia.

“You can see, moreover, how Vietnam has profited by this manipulation. It will perhaps soon reap the fruits of its expansionist ambition,” he said. “At present, Vietnam already is exploiting the land and sea and rivers of Cambodia. That is with the blessings of the current Cambodian leaders.”

He identified the leaders who allowed Vietnam to take the reins of the country as the “gang of three of the CPP,” referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and late CPP President Chea Sim.

Khieu Samphan ended by paying his respects to those who lost their lives at the hands of his regime, former Khmer Rouge cadres, and those who were killed during the U.S. aerial bombardment of Cambodia during the Second Indochina War.

“I want to bow to the memory of all the innocent victims, but also to all those who perished by believing in a better ideal of the brighter future, and who died during the five-year war under the American bombardments and the conflict with the Vietnamese invaders,” he said.

“Their memory will never be honored by any international tribunal. Thank you.”

Despite Nuon Chea declining to take the stand, his lawyer Victor Koppe took the opportunity to let loose his typical, firebrand-style ranting against the tribunal and the prosecution, which he accused of repeating tactics similar to those they employed during the pair’s first trial, when the co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity mostly related to the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.

“Also then, Mr. President, they were speaking with broken voices and somehow expecting that we would all spontaneously start crying with them in the courtroom,” the Dutch lawyer said. “Also, back then, there was no rigorous or dispassionate analysis of the evidence, but just a show, as if this courtroom is some kind of circus.”

Despite the outcome of the trial, Mr. Koppe said he believed the Cambodian people would understand that the killings of cadres for treacherous activities were logical—comparing the killing of Northwest Zone commander Ruos Nhim to the murder of Osama bin Laden, the founder of the al-Qaida militant group behind the 9/11 U.S. terrorist attacks.

“The Cambodian public will also appreciate that Ruos Nhim was to Democratic Kampuchea what Osama bin Laden was to the United States, but then 10 times more dangerous,” he said.

“Did former U.S. President Barack Obama hesitate to have bin Laden executed? Or hesitate to execute any of his allies, be it somewhere in Yemen or Pakistan or anywhere in the world? No, he didn’t—he just used different and more advanced means like drones.”

He ended by calling for his closing brief in Nuon Chea’s defense to be disseminated throughout the country as a historical record.

“Nuon Chea couldn’t care less if you convict him again to a life sentence. He really doesn’t care because rightfully so, he doesn’t take this institution seriously,” Mr. Koppe said.

“Mr. President, he does have one final wish, and his wish is that the [tribunal] will translate our closing brief as soon as is reasonably possible into Khmer and that copies of it will be distributed in the same manner as the [tribunal] has distributed its own judgment,” he said.

“In his opinion, and also in my opinion, that would be the real legacy of this tribunal.”

The Trial Chamber will now start to deliberate the evidence in the mammoth case, which has lasted two-and-a-half years, and consisted of 283 hearings involving 185 witnesses, civil parties and experts. A verdict is expected next year.

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