Lawyers for Nuon Chea on Thursday told judges at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal that “the only avenue forward” for the regime’s former deputy secretary is an acquittal, due to weak evidence that fails to implicate him and a trial that the defense deems to have been inherently unfair.
The 87-year-old’s international lawyer, Victor Koppe, and his national counterpart, Son Arun, used their second and final day of closing statements to attempt to further discredit the case put before the court by co-prosecutors.
They also, again, asked why the government’s National Assembly president, Heng Samrin, who they said would have been a key witness, was never called to take the stand.
Throughout the day, the pair painstakingly addressed each of the charges against their client—the general targeting and eventual execution of Lon Nol officials and soldiers at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat province, the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975 and the forced transfer of people in a second population movement—either denying that there was any link to their client or that his intentions were far from criminal.
While prosecutors sought to prove that Nuon Chea was a powerful figure whose orders were born from criminal policies he drafted and were then carried out by loyal Khmer Rouge soldiers across Cambodia, his defense team said the reality was very different.
“With no evidence that Nuon Chea or the standing committee had a common purpose…to bring about the deaths of large numbers of people, Nuon Chea must be found not guilty and accordingly the chamber must acquit Nuon Chea,” Mr. Arun said.
“The only witness to testify about the [Communist Party of Kampuchea’s] intent with regard to Khmer Republic soldiers was Phy Phuon,” Mr. Koppe said in reference to a witness who is also known as Rochoem Ton, and who ferried messages between Pol Pot and late defendant Ieng Sary during the regime.
“He was a well-placed insider,” who was with the party leaders in the days leading up to the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Mr. Koppe added. He reminded the court that Mr. Phuon had testified in July 2012 that Khmer Rouge fighters were “ordered not to touch” Lon Nol soldiers, because “they had raised white flags already.”
According to Mr. Koppe, Mr. Samrin, the Assembly president, also told Khmer Rouge historian Ben Kiernan that former republic solders and officials were to be “scattered,” and that it had been made clear that there had been no orders to kill.
Mr. Samrin’s appearance at the trial would have been “critical,” he added.
“The key issue in relation to the allegations about Tuol Po Chrey is our client’s intent,” he said. “The only witness who claims to know Nuon Chea’s intent is Heng Samrin. That claim is eminently reliable. It follows that his appearance at this trial is non-negotiable and minimum right of Nuon Chea to a fair trial.”
That right is something that both the Supreme Court Chamber and international Pre-Trial Chamber judges recognized, Mr. Koppe said.
However, he said, Nuon Chea’s fair trial rights have been eroded by a court staffed with people complicit with the government in wanting to seeing a guilty verdict handed down as quickly as possible and no further cases heard.
“Heng Samrin is the single most important fact witness,” Mr. Koppe said. “There is no conceivable reason for the chamber to fail to summons him other than the lack of meaningful independence from the government.”
Turning again to the charges, he said that evidence presented at the court did not prove allegations that there had been a centrally devised policy, carried out countrywide, to have Lon Nol soldiers executed.
He said no such policy existed before the Khmer Rouge took over the country on April 17, 1975, as evidenced in prior evacuations of Oudong and Kompong Cham, and that video recorded statements shown in court from former cadre about killings at Tuol Po Chrey were “out of court witness statements from witnesses we have not been able to cross examine.”
“In order to trace any executions back to the party center, they’d have to show [such acts] were so widespread that beyond a reasonable doubt they were ordered by the party center. But the testimony of 10 witnesses across the entire country is manifestly insufficient,” Mr. Koppe said, adding that a lack of physical evidence as to the alleged killings should also be considered and that there is no evidence linking his client to the site.
“If executions did take place, the only reasonable explanation is that they were committed by lower-level cadre, without the knowledge or intent of the party center,” he added.
Mr. Arun, meanwhile, said Nuon Chea’s intentions for the evacuation of Phnom Penh were only the best and in response to an agricultural situation that had seen many people in Phnom Penh go hungry.
“Had the population remained in the city, many thousands might have died,” Mr. Arun said.
“Nuon Chea genuinely believed that collectivization by the formation of cooperatives was essential to the distribution of rice. He genuinely believed that relocating the population of Phnom Penh was in the best interest of the population. Under these extraordinary circumstances, the evacuation was a legitimate policy decision and not sufficiently severe enough to constitute inhumane acts.”
Mr. Arun said also that the party center didn’t have as much control of troops as prosecutors would have people believe.
“Soldiers were acting under zone leaders and not the party center,” he said. “Soldiers here testified repeatedly that during the evacuation, Phnom Penh was geographically divided into four distinct squadrons, with each occupied by the southwest, eastern, northern and special zone armies that had liberated the city.”
Mr. Samrin also told Mr. Kiernan that soldiers who crossed into others’ territories could be arrested for doing so and, Mr. Arun said, “he could have given crucial exculpatory evidence had he appeared.”
Nuon Chea is to address the court himself on October 31. The defense team for Khieu Samphan will begin closing statements today.