Khmer Rouge Death Toll ‘Highly Exaggerated,’ Lawyer Says

A debate broke out at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday about whether to call a demographics expert for questioning about the death toll during the Pol Pot regime, with a defense lawyer contending some figures were “highly exaggerated.”

The question of how many people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge has been hotly contested, with estimates ranging from 600,000 to 3 million. In a 2009 report, Ewa Tabeau, a demographer hired by the tribunal, determined that there were most likely between 1.75 million and 2.2 million deaths during the regime.

Debating whether Ms. Tabeau—identified only as 2-TCE-93—should be called to testify at the court, senior assistant prosecutor Dale Lysak argued it was unnecessary, saying the value of her testimony was not worth the delay to the current trial that it could require.

In response, Victor Koppe, defense counsel for the regime’s second-in-command Nuon Chea, said he believed the debate over how many Cambodians lost their lives under communist rule was essential to his client’s case.

“It’s something that always comes up. It’s the first thing that one sees when you Google ‘Democratic Kampuchea’—it’s 1.8 to 2 million,” he said. “We believe this is highly exaggerated and I think the Cambodian public and the international community deserve to have a proper debate.”

If the actual death count is far less than what experts have said, “then it is very important to Nuon Chea, and certainly also to Khieu Samphan, that the regime should not necessarily be seen in a different light than, for instance, the 1965 Indonesian regime in terms of casualties,” Mr. Koppe said, referencing communist purges overseen by former Indonesian President Suharto.

Mr. Lysak said the exact number of deaths during the Khmer Rouge had no bearing on whether the regime systematically targeted civilians on a mass scale.

“This isn’t a debate here about the legacy of the regime. I would be happy to have that with counsel any time this trial is over,” Mr. Lysak said.

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