A senior Khmer Rouge leader has accused a war crimes tribunal of wanting his “head on the block”, and insisted he had no real authority during the regime’s brutal rule of Cambodia in the 1970s.
Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, said he was a figurehead leader who never joined key policy meetings in the radical communist government, which is accused of orchestrating the country’s “killing fields” and causing the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.
In his rebuttal of prosecutors’ opening remarks, Khieu Samphan accused the UN-backed tribunal of exaggerating the Khmer Rouge’s wrongdoing with “fairytales”.
However, he also sought to justify the regime’s rule in a historical context - just as the highest surviving leader Nuon Chea did during comments to the panel yesterday – saying the movement sought to protect the country from French colonialists, the US and neighbouring enemy Vietnam.
“Today you may see it as a joke. However, I shall remind you that at that time, communism was the one movement that gave hope to millions of youth around the world. What I really wanted at that time was the best possible experience for my country, for Cambodia,” Khieu Samphan said.
The tribunal is seeking justice on behalf of an estimated quarter of Cambodia’s population to have died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork when the Khmer Rouge held power in 1975-79.
The defendants – Khieu Samphan, 80; Nuon Chea, 85, the group’s No 2 and chief ideologist; and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86 – are the most senior surviving members of the regime. They are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture, but have long denied wrongdoing.
The Khmer Rouge’s supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in Cambodia’s jungles while a prisoner of his own comrades.
Prosecutors on Monday and Tuesday described a litany of horrors imposed by the Khmer Rouge as it tried to build an agrarian utopia.
Khieu Samphan said today that the prosecutors’ accounts were based mainly on unreliable old news reports and books, calling them “fairytales”, and said his position as head of state had no real power.
“You really want my head on the block,” Khieu Samphan said.
Khieu Samphan also reminded the court that US bombing of his country during the Vietnam War contributed to its misery.
“Can you imagine what my country faced after such bloody killing and war?” he declared.
While decrying the case against him, he added that he welcomed the opportunity to explain his role to the Cambodian public.
“I clearly know that I contributed to national reconciliation in order to defend my country, for it to be a sovereign, independent nation.”
Co-defendant Nuon Chea, who spoke yesterday, stressed his role in protecting Cambodia’s sovereignty. It was a touchstone of Khmer Rouge beliefs that neighbouring Vietnam sought to annex the country and was behind most of its troubles.
The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offences. His sentence was reduced to 19 years due to time served and other technicalities.