Making their closing statements at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday, the defense team for war crimes suspect Khieu Samphan used a long-held strategy to argue that their client was simply a well-intentioned individual who sought only the best for his country after years of conflict.
Khieu Samphan’s national lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, said that while Khieu Samphan had been seen as something of a face of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, both at home and abroad, “his role was confined to protocol.”
Mr. Sam Onn said that “Pol Pot saw advantages of expanding the revolutionary movement” by using the popularity of others, including then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been ousted from power in 1970, “and knew that Khieu Samphan would be a good focal point of contact” for the people.
“This is why Khieu Samphan received a position in the front of the [exiled] GRUNK front, to assert national independence and territorial integrity…. He was willing to be the representative and bridge between Sihanouk and Beijing [where GRUNK was headquartered] with the Communist Party of Kampuchea and had the ability to resist and unite the forces,” he said of his client’s figurehead role.
Mr. Sam Onn said Khieu Samphan also saw the opportunity to “form a new movement successful in reuniting the country,” even though he felt that the job, in essence, was “this position of nothing.”
Khieu Samphan is an honest man, he continued, adding that the court would be wrong to have an impression of Khieu Samphan as a military man bent on formulating military strategy.
“He had no capacity or training in terms of military training or command,” Mr. Sam Onn said. “In the military hierarchy, [former Khmer Rouge defense chief] Son Sen and Pol Pot were responsible, not Mr. Khieu Samphan.”
Mr. Sam Onn said Khmer Rouge historian Stephen Heder, during his testimony earlier this year, had told the court that Khieu Samphan’s position as deputy commander in chief prior to 1975 was merely symbolic.
“When he traveled overseas, Ieng Sary had the power and Khieu Samphan was the head of the delegation, but when Ieng Sary was there, he had effective power. Justice for Khieu Samphan is that he is released and acquitted,” he added.
Khieu Samphan’s French lawyer, Arthur Vercken, warned the Trial Chamber judges against finding his client guilty on a case he said prosecutors had built not on facts, but “blurred by a fog of suppositions.”
“They are asking you to judge the accused for wanting to set up a communist regime in Cambodia,” Mr. Vercken said.
“It became even more obvious with the recent theory of slave camps. The investigating judges at least had the intellectual honesty to concede that Democratic Kampuchea policies were not entirely criminal. The new theory put forward by the prosecution of a nationwide slave camp in a severed case file does show to what extent the way this file is being handled—it is often more political than legal.”
He said their case against Khieu Samphan in terms of his supposed involvement in the killings of Lon Nol soldiers and officials at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat province was tenuous.
“You didn’t hear either of the witnesses testify that they witnessed a single murder,” he said. “They were 10 to 15 km away.”
He said the prosecutors were “jumping out through a window” instead of entering through the door by trying to prove that there was a policy to kill the soldiers and that Khieu Samphan was involved in it.
Khieu Samphan’s widely heard radio broadcasts calling for the arrest of the so-called “seven super traitors isn’t proof of his part in a general systematic attack against former Lon Nol officials,” Mr. Vercken said.
“A disingenuous vision of history cannot be allowed in this courtroom that is completely a concoction by members of the prosecution,” he said, imploring the judges to ignore “a fictitious narrative.”
His co-lawyer, Anta Guisse, summed up her team’s position by telling the judges that Khieu Samphan had been painted as a “diabolical figure” who, in fact, “did not believe all the things he is accused of.”
“The answer is that you have to acquit the accused,” she said.
“Despite the pain you heard from civil parties’ voices, you have to acquit. Despite the pressure of international opinion, you have to acquit…. You have a duty vis-a-vis the law and vis-a-vis procedure and to be independent in your judgment. Is this a duty you are going to fulfill? Only you will be able to answer that question when you come to deliberate.”