By SOPHENG CHEANG and DAVID RISING
In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, sits in a courtroom during a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Khieu Samphan, the last living leader from the inner circle of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, is to appear in court Monday as he seeks to overturn his conviction on genocide charges before a long-running international tribunal. (Nhet Sok Heng/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia via AP)
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The last living leader from the inner circle of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime launched his courtroom appeal Monday, seeking to convince a long-running international tribunal to overturn his conviction on genocide charges.
Khieu Samphan, 90, was the former head of state for the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime that ruled Cambodia with an iron fist from 1975 to 1979 and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.
His defense team is seeking to overturn a 2018 verdict finding him guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, questioning the evidence and arguing there were procedural mistakes.
Kong Sam Onn told the judges of the Supreme Court Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC, that his client had been given inadequate time to prepare an initial defense, and that the original panel failed to provide the grounds for its ruling in a timely fashion, among other things.
“It should be null and void, and so I am requesting the Supreme Court chamber to ... reverse the judgment,” he said.
Khieu Samphan sat in a chair behind his attorneys, wearing a mask in compliance with COVID-19 precautions and appearing to listen intently as they addressed the court. Kong Sam Onn said his client would address the chamber at the end of the four days of scheduled hearings.
Prosecutors in opening statements rejected the procedural arguments, while emphasizing the “totality” of the evidence against the defendant.
“Mr. Khieu Samphan fails to establish the assertion that underlies his entire appeal, that he knew nothing, saw nothing and heard nothing of the crimes for which he stands convicted,” said prosecutor Chea Leang.
“In addition, the defendant, Mr. Khieu Samphan, fails to establish that his conduct does not make him responsible for those crimes and contrary to the appellant’s assertions the evidence underlying his convictions is extensive, diverse and compelling.”
Observers say it’s unlikely that the conviction will be overturned, and even if it is, the former leader is already serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2014 of crimes against humanity connected with forced transfers and disappearances of masses of people. That conviction was upheld on appeal in 2016.
“The appeal hearing is quite important for both sides, the Cambodian victims and the accused,” said tribunal spokesman, Neth Pheaktra.
The verdict won’t come until next year.
Under the leadership of the late Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to eliminate all traces of what it saw as corrupt bourgeois life, destroying most religious, financial and social institutions, and forcing millions out of cities to live in the countryside.
Dissent was usually met with death in the Khmer Rouge’s notorious “killing fields” or elsewhere, while starvation, overwork and medical neglect took many more lives.
Only when an invasion by Vietnam finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 did the magnitude of the killings become truly known.
Khieu Samphan’s 2018 conviction was largely connected to crimes committed against Vietnamese and Cham minorities in Cambodia.
He was found not guilty of genocide against the Cham, a Muslim ethnic minority whose members had put up a small but futile resistance against the Khmer Rouge, for lack of evidence. But he was found guilty of genocide of the Vietnamese under the principle of joint criminal enterprise, under which individuals can be held responsible for the actions of a group to which they belong.
His crimes against humanity conviction covered activities at work camps and cooperatives established by the Khmer Rouge. They included murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political, religious and racial grounds, attacks on human dignity, forced marriages and rape.
He was “found to have encouraged, incited, and legitimized criminal policies and to have made a significant contribution to crimes committed” by the Khmer Rouge.
The breaches of the Geneva Convention governing war crimes included willful killing, torture and inhumane treatment.
During his trial, Khieu Samphan claimed the allegations against him were “Vietnamese propaganda” and said that while he had been aware of accusations of suffering under the Khmer Rouge, “the term murderer I categorically reject.”
After being ousted from power in 1979, t