Judges Order Closed Session Amid Contradictory Coup Claims

The contradictory testimony of a former soldier about his involvement in an attempted overthrow of Pol Pot led judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal to close proceedings to the public on Thursday, while a defense lawyer suggested the inconsistency could be due to something that occurred during the lunch break.

Following a brief closed session, however, a judge announced that the witness had informed the court that he was not approached or threatened by anyone during the recess.

Victor Koppe, defense counsel for Nuon Chea, speaks at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2015. (ECCC)
Victor Koppe, defense counsel for Nuon Chea, speaks at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2015. (ECCC)

Although generally reticent to answer questions, Suoy Sao, who was a teenager when he joined the Khmer Rouge’s Division 310, confirmed a statement he had previously made to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), saying during the morning session that he had been involved in an attempted coup led by division commander Ta Oeun.

“What happened to Ta Oeun?” asked Victor Koppe, a defense lawyer for Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea, who is on trial for crimes including genocide.

“He was arrested,” responded Mr. Sao.

“He staged a coup at the time,” he continued. “He wanted to topple Pol Pot’s regime.”

Mr. Sao also confirmed claims that he attended a secret meeting of 100 combatants in 1976 during which Ta Oeun outlined plans to seize Phnom Penh, and helped transport weapons before the plot was foiled.

Evidence of internal rebellions are integral to the Nuon Chea defense, with his lawyers claiming the Khmer Rouge was not strictly hierarchical, but rife with factional infighting. Another former Division 310 soldier, Sem Hoeurn, spoke of similar plans for a coup led by Ta Oeun when he testified at the tribunal last year.

But when senior assistant prosecutor Dale Lysak was questioning Mr. Sao in the afternoon, the witness reversed course. He said he had not attended the meeting with Ta Oeun and had only heard about the movement of weapons.

Prompted by Judge Claudia Fenz, Mr. Sao reiterated that his DC-Cam statement was accurate—only for him to continue contradicting it.

Mr. Koppe then suggested that his new version of events could be the result of something that took place during the lunch recess, and requested the closed session.

“The sudden change in the nature of his answers made me stand up for a brief period to have the doors closed to see if something happened during lunch with this witness,” Mr. Koppe said.

Although the Trial Chamber denied his initial request, the Dutch lawyer interjected when Judge Fenz began grilling the witness on whether his DC-Cam statement was correct.

“Something happened and you should ask him. That’s what the court is about—proper proceedings,” Mr. Koppe said, and a brief closed session was called.

When the courtroom was opened to the public again, Mr. Sao continued to claim he had no knowledge of events that he had previously described.

In response to a request by Mr. Lysak, Judge Fenz then announced that the witness had told the court he was not approached during the lunch break.

“I’m doing this to inform the public that the witness confirmed that he hasn’t been approached by anybody or threatened by anyone, before or during this statement,” the Austrian judge said, to the annoyance of Mr. Koppe.

“Well, so much for promising a witness that nothing will be said from a [closed] hearing,” Mr. Koppe said.

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