Appeal hearings began Thursday in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s first case against senior regime leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who are attempting to have their life sentences for crimes against humanity overturned.
“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life in prison at the tribunal in August for their criminal responsibility in the evacuation of Phnom Penh and the execution of Lon Nol soldiers and officials at the Tuol Po Chrey site in Pursat province.
During four days of appeal hearings that began Thursday, defense teams for both men are seeking to highlight errors, in fact and law, relating to the judgment.
The hearings’ first witness, Sao Van, was chief of Tram Kak district’s Cheang Tong commune front prior to 1975 and was later transferred to Kandal province. He is now a CNRP councilor in the same commune. He told the court Thursday that he heard a radio broadcast by Khieu Samphan before the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country in April 1975, informing listeners that the new regime would spare the vast majority of Lon Nol’s army.
“I can tell you that [during] the war time, even before the entire country had been liberated, Khieu Samphan made a radio broadcast that foot soldiers, ranked soldiers and officials, bourgeoisie, students and compatriots…would be pardoned, and the front would adjudicate and prosecute only seven people,” Mr. Van said, referring to Lon Nol and six other high-ranking officials who had been dubbed the “Seven Traitors” by the Khmer Rouge.
“My understanding is that the message was broadcast in order to unify the entire Cambodian population, regardless of political tendencies, in order to join forces to build the country,” he said.
A similar line toward Lon Nol soldiers was adopted by Southwest Zone commander Ta Mok and Ta Saom, the chief of an administrative unit known as Sector 13, the witness claimed. He said that during meetings at Kreal Mountain and in Takeo City after the fall of Phnom Penh, the two officials warned cadre not to harm former Lon Nol soldiers.
“If anyone violated this principle, it meant that the individual had to dig a grave for himself. In his speech, [Ta Mok] reiterated that within the zone, the ‘life’ issue was at the ultimate hands of the zone and the center,” Mr. Van said.
“[T]hree months after the liberation, Ta Saom invited concerned cadre in Sector 13 and he advised or informed the cadre that the former soldiers up to the rank of colonel should not be harmed because those soldiers…had their family members in the liberated zone…who contributed to the liberation of the country,” he added.
In a heated afternoon session filled with objections and confrontation between the prosecution and defense, International Co-Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian grilled Mr. Van on his knowledge of killings during the Pol Pot era.
“Sir, I know you’re looking straight ahead as you should be. Behind you there is an audience that contains many young Cambodian people. Can you tell them, since you were there—an official of the Khmer Rouge—during the regime: Did the Khmer Rouge kill people during the regime?” Mr. Koumjian asked.
After Victor Koppe, defense counsel for Nuon Chea, objected and asked the prosecutor to “leave the theatrics behind,” the witness claimed he was not aware of any killings.
“I’m not able to know whether the Khmer Rouge killed people. I do not really know,” he responded.
Mr. Van did, however, say that he suspected he was later demoted from his post in Kandal because his brother had been a low-level official in the Khmer Republic. He also admitted that he had begun to doubt what he had been told about the regime’s policy toward Lon Nol soldiers after seeing skulls and skeletal remains at the Kraing Ta Chan security center in Tram Kak after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
“From what I saw at Kraing Ta Chan and at Tuol Sleng, I made a conclusion that there was a change,” he said.
Appeal hearings continue Friday.