Pol Pot’s former head of state, Khieu Samphan, delivered a sharp scolding to co-prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, accusing them of spinning what he called “fairytales,” and insisting he had no knowledge of grim conditions on the ground during the regime.
In a wide-ranging and frequently sarcastic statement that touched upon everything from his doctoral thesis in economics (“It was a success”) to the distortions of journalists (“Of course, they are entitled to be wrong”), Khieu Samphan took prosecutors Chea Leang and Andrew Cayley to task for what he said were serious distortions of the historical record.
“While listening to you, I questioned myself: ‘Do you in fact believe what you say?’ Or maybe you are blinded in your idea as you really attempted just to punish me at every cost,” Khieu Samphan told Ms Leang and Mr Cayley.
Prosecutors presented their own opening statements on Monday and Tuesday, accusing Khieu Samphan and his two co-defendants of orchestrating a brutal campaign of murder, starvation and oppression that led to millions of deaths.
Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary also added a dose of courtroom theatrics to yesterday’s proceedings when, shortly after starting to read a prepared statement, he clapped his hand to his heart and declared he was too exhausted to continue.
Ieng Sary had originally asked that his lawyer be given permission to read the statement, but when Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn denied the request, he agreed to be wheeled to the dock in a chair.
“I’m very exhausted—I perhaps cannot continue reading it because my heart does not allow me to continue reading. I don’t know how I can do it,” said Ieng Sary.
The court once again denied a request to allow a lawyer to read the statement, and eventually Ieng Sary started up again. The statement itself was brief and to the point, examining only Ieng Sary’s displeasure with the Trial Chamber’s refusal to grant a stay of proceedings in his case until a legal matter has been settled.
“Because the Trial Chamber is not acting correctly, I am of the opinion that I should not participate in this trial until the Supreme Court Chamber has ruled on the Royal pardon and amnesty,” he concluded. “However, out of respect for this institution, I will continue to participate as I have always done since I was charged, arrested and brought to the ECCC’s detention facilities. In Phnom Penh on the 21st of November, 2011. Signature Ieng Sary. That’s all from me, Your Honors.”
Khieu Samphan, on the other hand, spoke for nearly an hour, laying out his version of events before the Trial Chamber with considerable care. Like Brother Number Two Nuon Chea did on Tuesday, he cast himself as a patriot and freedom-fighter acting in the best interests of the Cambodian people.
He insisted that he was a mere figurehead in Pol Pot’s government, pointing out several times that retired King Norodom Sihanouk was also nominally the Khmer Rouge head of state for a year. Neither he nor the retired king had any real decision-making power or any sense of the Cambodian people’s suffering, he claimed.
“Do you really think, Mr Co-Prosecutor, that when I visited those worksites alone or accompanied by the King, workers were being murdered in front of us with hoes or bullets in the back of the neck?” he asked.
“At that point, your words seemed just as absurd as when, the day before, the national co-prosecutor had claimed that Angkar gave individual instructions for forced marriages and personally monitored them to see that they were physically consummated. Of course, I wasn’t a member of Angkar, but I imagine that with a country to run, its members had other things to do than check if people were having sex.”
Making a rare appearance in court, Khieu Samphan’s lawyer Jacques Verges gave listeners a taste of the flamboyance that has made him famous, comparing prosecutors’ statements to “a novel by Alexandre Dumas,” quoting Talleyrand and asking listeners to think of the Cambodian children killed by American carpet-bombing in the early 1970s, whom he called “the forgotten dead of this trial.”
Despite the freewheeling rhetoric on display, many victims attending the hearing remained dubious about the motivations of their former leaders.
“He’s pretending,” 61-year-old farmer Sien Chin said of Ieng Sary. “I don’t think he had a lack of energy to read his statement. I think he has learned from the example of his wife, Ieng Thirith.”
Hang Song, 60, whose son was executed in 1977, said that Khieu Samphan’s denial of rape within forced marriage had infuriated her.
“Shame on him for not admitting about forced marriage before the chamber and the public. I witnessed a number of forced marriages in my district…. He is not speaking the truth, but just giving a speech to the public to say he was a hero in liberating the country from Lon Nol. His statement is just insane.”
But Soum Sun, who lost a father-in-law and two siblings during the regime, said she simply felt sorry for the two elderly men.
“I feel such pity for them,” she said.
“They should have received medical treatment and stayed at home with their family members at their age. Everybody makes mistakes.”
Khieu Samphan admitted as much near the end of his speech, saying that he had learned and changed over the years, and acknowledging that the Khmer Rouge had inflicted horrors on the Cambodian population.
“It is true that I have developed and that development took place in keeping with the knowledge I was gaining and my meditations on this period of history,” he said of the Khmer Rouge era.
This development was apparent early on yesterday, as Khieu Samphan opened his speech by offering a respectful sampeah to the monks sitting in the court’s public gallery.
When Khieu Samphan was head of state, monks were targeted for persecution and referred to as “blood-sucking parasitic worms,” and pagodas were converted into pigpens.