Speaking at the end of three days of testimony by civil parties at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday, the Pol Pot regime’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea, expressed rare remorse and accepted qualified responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people during the period of his rule.
The elderly co-defendant—the former deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea—has been repeatedly asked over the past few days, alongside fellow regime leader Khieu Samphan, if he is willing to acknowledge his role in the mass crimes that were perpetrated between 1975 and 1979.
Responding to civil party Yin Roum Doul, who told the court how his mother had been killed after she was imprisoned and beaten for stealing rice seedlings, Nuon Chea spoke in a clear, authoritative voice from his holding cell by video link, where he could be seen assisted by two guards.
“I am responsible for what happened during the period of Democratic Kampuchea. I am not evading my responsibility. I am bearing the responsibility from my heart. I am being frank with you. In my capacity as a member of Democratic Kampuchea I accept the responsibility,” Nuon Chea told the court.
“I feel remorseful for the crimes that were committed intentionally or unintentionally, whether or not I knew about it or not. I take the responsibility morally. I need to emphasize, and on this occasion let me express my sincere condolences to the loss of your family members.”
Khieu Samphan also took to the stand and proceeded to express his condolences to the victims of the regime, though he claimed he had no knowledge or decision-making power in the many killings that took place between 1975 and 1979.
“If I were you, I would have the same sorrow and pain,” Khieu Samphan said. “My role in Democratic Kampuchea was to save my life.”
“Looking from the outside, someone would think I was someone of authority. My title was huge, but in reality I had no power or authority to order the arrest of anyone. I was working in the top position, but I did not know what was going on.”
Youk Chang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he carefully reviewed what Nuon Chea said in court and, despite some differences between the Khmer and translated English versions, he thought the testimony could be significant.
“I believe this somewhat apology is a piece of strong evidence against him,” he said. “This is the first time he said it in front of the courtroom in front of the judges; he always denied responsibility.”
“To me he is turning the last page of the last chapter of his life history with the Khmer Rouge today, and it’s a conclusion now…. We got him,” he said.
Nuon Chea’s statement Thursday was a far cry from the comment he made during a press conference in 1998 after surrendering to the government.
When Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were asked by reporters whether they felt remorse for those killed during their regime, a smiling Khieu Samphan responded: “Yes, sorry, sorry, sorry. I am very sorry.” Nuon Chea chimed in: “Actually, we’re very sorry, not just for the lives of the people, but also for the lives of animals that suffered in the war,” author Nic Dunlop wrote in his 2005 book, “The Lost Executioner.”
Speaking in court earlier Thursday, civil party witness Nou Hoan asked whether or not the defendants could explain the “mysterious” disappearances of high-ranking party members during the regime. He also asked the pair “how they could claim to defend national interests and protect the country if they killed their own people?”
Nuon Chea again responded. But this time he appeared to deflect some of the blame.
“I would like to reiterate once again the role and responsibility I was assigned during Democratic Kampuchea period,” he said. “[I] was assigned to be the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. I was in charge of propaganda and education in [the] party and chairman of the committee of the people’s assembly. As for the executive branch, I had no power whatsoever.
“Certain things I was aware of, but others I wasn’t. I’m not trying to evade justice or responsibility, but I’m telling you the truth and I of course was one of the leaders of this government. I am not rejecting my responsibility. I shared responsibility as leaders of this regime but I had no role in the executive branch of government.”
Khieu Samphan also said that while he was sorry for the pain and suffering, he had no role in the acts carried out by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
“I would like to apologize to you that during the Democratic Kampuchea period I was not aware of the great suffering of Cambodian people as you’ve been describing,” he said.
“I did not know what was going on then, because I was not the effective leader of the regime. I was a highly-educated intellectual. I joined by accident. And when I joined them, the reason behind my decision was nothing but to help the country. I wanted to mobilize the national forces in order to fight in the war at that time. I didn’t join to kill innocent people—I could not imagine doing that.
“The murderers who killed your relatives—I strongly condemn them, and I want them to be brought to justice.”