Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide trial nears end

Credit: AP/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia/HNET SOK HENG 
Khieu Samphan, the Paris-educated intellectual who served as the Khmer Rouge head of state in the 1970s, sits in court during the war-crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

The genocide trial of two senior Khmer Rouge leaders concluded its hearings Friday with an angry scolding by the lawyer for one defendant and a humble bow to the victims by the other.

 

The half-day hearing could be the last in a decade of proceedings against leading figures in the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist movement that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia from 1975-79.

 

The defendants were Nuon Chea, 90, the ideologue sometimes known as Brother No. 2 who was second-in-command to the Khmer Rouge's leader, Pol Pot; and Khieu Samphan, 85, the urbane, Paris-educated intellectual who served as the nominal head of state.

 

A verdict is expected to take months.

 

Three lower-ranking cadres still face charges of genocide, but their prosecution faces strong opposition from Prime Minister Hun Sen and doubts about continued funding for a tribunal that has already cost $300 million.

 

The tribunal has secured three convictions since it opened in 2006. It produced life sentences for Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, the brutal head of an interrogation center, and for the two current defendants, who were found guilty in an earlier trial of crimes against humanity. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were being tried on a different set of charges this time.

 

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are the last survivors of a tightknit group that tried to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, killing off its educated people and reorganizing the country into what amounted to a nationwide labor camp.

 

Pol Pot died in 1998, and two of the original defendants in this trial have died since it began.

 

The three lower-ranking cadres are Meas Muth, a former naval commander; Ao An, a former deputy secretary for the Central Zone; and Yim Tith, a former acting secretary of the Northwest Zone. They are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

 

Citing questions about funding, two investigating judges have said they are prepared to issue a stay of proceedings against the three men, effectively putting an end to the tribunal once the two current cases are completed.

 

The judges said a decision on the disposition of the cases could come as early as Friday.

 

The trial is a combined enterprise of the United Nations and the Cambodian courts. Most of its funding comes from international donor nations whose generosity has been strained as the trial has dragged on and other priorities have taken its place.

 

Hun Sen has repeatedly warned of civil war if the tribunal moves on to more prosecutions. Many analysts say that if these cases are dropped as a result of government pressure, it will cast a shadow over the entire tribunal and throw the integrity of the process into question.

 

In a statement, James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the proposal to issue a stay was "a drastic, insufficiently supported and unwarranted option that would profoundly damage the credibility and legacy" of the court.

 

Khieu Samphan was the last person to speak at the proceedings on Friday.

 

As before, he pleaded ignorance about the forced labor and killings that terrorized the country while he was in power.

 

And he repeated his familiar, nuanced mea culpa, saying, "I want to bow to the memory of all the innocent victims, but also to those who perished believing in an ideal of a brighter future and who died during the five-year war, under the American bombardments and the conflict with the Vietnamese invaders."

 

Both he and Nuon Chea have pointed to U.S. B-52 strikes that killed many civilians and energized the communist movement as precursors of the Khmer Rouge.

 

At an earlier court session, a defense lawyer for Khieu Samphan, Anta Guisse, took a more aggressive tone, saying the trial and its international backers, intended from the start to convict and sentence the defendants.

 

"Mr. Khieu Samphan is going to die in jail," she said. "He's going to die in jail, and he knows that. His defense knows that as well. You know it as well. The prosecution as well as the civil parties know it, too. Especially the donors who financed this court know it as well. Mission accomplished."

 

Nuon Chea refused to attend the session Friday, preferring to watch, as he often has, on a closed-circuit monitor in a holding room beneath the trial chamber.

 

Speaking on his behalf, his lawyer, Victor Koppe, called the proceedings "some sort of circus" and said: "Nuon Chea couldn't care less if you convict him again to a life sentence. He really doesn't care because, rightfully so, he doesn't take this institution seriously."

 

The prosecution portrayed Nuon Chea as dedicated and unrepentant. It played clips from interviews he gave to journalist Thet Sambath in which Nuon Chea said he had "no regrets" for the killings.

 

"Believe me, if these traitors were alive, the Khmers as a people would have been finished," Nuon Chea said in the recording. "I dare to suggest our decision was the correct one. If I had shown mercy to these people, the nation would have been lost. But if the individual becomes a problem, then they must be solved."

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(c) 2017 The New York Times

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