As closing statements moved into their second day at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal Thursday, co-prosecutors attempted to prove to the judges that co-accused Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were deeply entrenched in a criminal enterprise that knowingly and deliberately caused the deaths of up to 2.2 million people.
National Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang told the court that the team’s intention over three days of hearings is to seek justice for “crimes that shocked the conscience of humanity,” and which were planned well in advance.
“Millions of women, children, the elderly and most vulnerable were affected,” Ms. Leang said.
“Even today, countless Cambodian families carry a heavy burden from the four-year period the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. They have memories of mistreatment, starvation and torture, of loved ones lost who were killed or simply disappeared.”
As a result of the Khmer Rouge’s policy to turn the country into a classless, slave state, the Cambodia of today still bears the scars of a generation of skilled and educated Cambodians who were mostly wiped out.
“This trial is important for Cambodia, but not just Cambodia, but important for the entire world. It demonstrates that crimes of such magnitude and severity will not be forgotten and that those responsible will be held to account,” Ms. Leang said.
She said the evidence presented to the court proved beyond doubt that “the crimes committed were the result of criminal policies that preceded and extended beyond the regime.”
“Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, as the most senior leaders, furthered the plan and policies, knowing that these crimes would result. What happened is what they planned.”
What happened, as history has told, is that an ambitious communist revolution was fomented in the jungle and in the years leading up to the ultimate evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge had already driven people out of some urban centers and sent them to its special zone, where work sites and cooperatives were being established.
One of the key events that ties Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea to the fateful evacuation of Phnom Penh, Ms. Leang said, was a meeting held by central Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) figures in June 1974, “at which leaders including these accused, decided collectively to evacuate by force the city of Phnom Penh and every other urban center.”
Subsequent meetings affirmed the military takeover of the city and the later forcible transfer of evacuees to the north and northwest of Cambodia.
“They intended those crimes and assured through their acts and authority that those crimes were committed,” she said.
“We submit that these acts alone are sufficient evidence to prove their guilt.”
Another crucial aspect of the crimes is that they were not committed “in a rapid turn of events, were not coincidental,” Ms. Leang stressed.
“Instead, they were orchestrated and implemented with precision through a highly hierarchical, disciplined and organized force, commanded by these accused.”
The prosecution is not making a case against socialist or communist philosophy or political ideas, she said.
“This is a case about violence, enslavement and death on a mass scale. On 17 April 1975, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and their co-perpetrators created the first slave state in the modern era. They ordered and orchestrated the emptying out of every city and urban center in Cambodia, broke up homes and families and herded millions of evacuees into rural cooperatives, in which they were imprisoned, stripped of their most fundamental rights as human beings, subject to psychological and physical abuse and forced to live in appalling conditions.”
As was the case during civil party lawyers’ closing statements on Wednesday, Khieu Samphan remained straight-faced for most of the hearing. Nuon Chea, who managed to spend 17 minutes in the courtroom that day, remained in his holding cell for the entirety of yesterday’s hearing.
Ms. Leang drew from a number of witnesses whose testimonies over the past two years of trial were woven into a common thread of pain, loss and horror.
Accounts of the fall of Phnom Penh, such as that delivered by photographer Al Rockoff and New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, were retold in parts, accompanied by eerie footage depicting the sacking of the city and desolate streets and boulevards.
The scenes at Preah Keth Melea hospital, where the sick and dying were left in bloodied corridors; the sights of disabled people crawling “like worms” down the street and tales of babies torn apart like rag dolls were all used to paint the picture prosecutors will use to try and convince the Trial Chamber to find Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea guilty of a litany of crimes.
The intent was there from early on, Ms. Leang said. In the 1960s, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea spoke of the “life and death contradiction” between landowners and peasants, an idea that became the bedrock of the revolution.
“The concept was powerful and enduring. It was not just a philosophical abstract, but a principle put into practice.”
She warned the Trial Chamber that prosecutors anticipate that both the co-accused “will seek refuge from criminal responsibility in a whole array of excuses” and that they acted with the best of intentions.
But she said the enslavement and terror experienced by people across the country under their rule is testament to their culpability.
“It happened under their watchful eyes,” Ms. Leang said. “There was a collective leadership in which the accused played key roles. They acted willfully and with intent to commit the crimes.”
Prosecutors will continue their closing statements on Friday and Monday and are expected to request a sentence on either of those days.