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Asia

Ex-Khmer Rouge leaders claim innocence as hearing ends

Cambodia's war crimes tribunal has concluded hearings in the first trial of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement. Prosecutors have called for a life sentence while the defence has requested their acquittal.

The trial of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which began in late 2011, has seen the two defendants consistently deny the charges against them. On Thursday, October 31, both accused again held to that line, and complained that the trial had not been fair.

Nuon Chea, who appeared in court in a wheelchair, told the bench that he loved the Cambodian people and would not have killed them. He blamed the deaths from execution, starvation, disease and overwork - which the court has put at 2 million between 1975 and 1979 - largely on Vietnamese spies trying to subvert the revolution.

The 87-year-old said he was not to blame for what had happened, claiming he "had no effective power" in the executive of the regime known as Democratic Kampuchea.

"Through this trial it is clearly [been shown] that I was not engaged in [committing] the crimes as alleged by the co-prosecutors," Nuon Chea said in an address that lasted more than an hour, and during which the audience laughed at some of his claims. "In short, I am innocent."

Yet despite insisting he was not legally responsible, Nuon Chea once again apologized for what had happened.

Chum Mey (R), a survivor of the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, arrives at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), in the outskirts of Phnom Penh October 21, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring)

Survivor of the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, Chum Mey (R), arrives at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on October 21

Khieu Samphan, on the other hand, spoke for less than 30 minutes and spent much of that time complaining bitterly that his efforts to tell the truth during his two-year-long trial had met with derision from those in the court who regarded him as "a monster." While acknowledging he had remained "close to those powerful individuals" during the Khmer Rouge's rule, the former head of state again insisted he had held no real power.

Life term

The charges contained in this first mini-trial have been far more limited than the full range of crimes in the complex 500-page indictment, which comprise genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given the age of the defendants, the judges decided early on to split the case.

This first mini-trial heard evidence of only three alleged crimes: the forcible evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country; further forced evictions of people from one part of the country to another over the next two years; and a single instance of mass killing at a place called Tuol Po Chrey when Khmer Rouge cadres executed hundreds of officials and soldiers of the defeated Lon Nol regime in 1975.

In all, the prosecution reckons 20,000 people died in the two forced transfers alone. On the evacuation of every person from Phnom Penh - which the prosecution said could not be justified under international law - the deaths of the young, old, pregnant women and hospital patients were eminently foreseeable, prosecutor William Smith told DW.

"Our view is that to force the population to leave without any preparations, with no notice, in the hottest month of the year, they knew that a certain amount of the population would die," Smith said. "Even if they didn't want the whole population to die, they knew that would happen. It's only commonsense."

With regard to the second charge - the forced transfer of hundreds of thousands of people across the country between 1975 and 1977 to labour in slave-like conditions - the prosecution noted this week that witnesses had testified to terrible conditions on arrival at their relocation sites, with thousands dying as a result.

People line up to enter the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), in the outskirts of Phnom Penh October 31, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring)

Over the two years of the so-called 'Case 002,' 100,000 people from across the country have attended the tribunal

Smith added that numerous documents proved the prosecution's contention on the third charge: that the executions of officers and officials from the Lon Nol regime were deliberate policy formulated by the leaders.

"Another group that was killed were a lot of the people who lived in the cities and were forced out of the cities and were killed within that process," Smith said.

For these thousands of deaths alone, Smith said, the defendants deserve a life term.

Acquit and release

In the closing week, Khieu Samphan's lawyers again portrayed their client as an honest man whose intentions in joining the revolution were essentially noble.

They repeatedly held that, as head of state, their client lacked genuine power and was unaware of the terrible conditions in the countryside. As for the specific charges, his defence argued that he had nothing to do with the decision to evacuate Phnom Penh or subsequent forced removals or the executions at Tuol Po Chrey. In consequence, they said, he should be released.

Nuon Chea's defence also called for their client's acquittal. Defence counsel Victor Koppe told DW on Tuesday that although his client was involved in the decision to evacuate Phnom Penh, what counted legally was whether there were "legitimate reasons at the time."

"We have argued that there were," said Koppe, "military reasons - for instance it was just the end of a war and there could still be resistance pockets within the city, [and] fear of American bombings, at least in the perception of the Khmer Rouge leaders. In addition, the food shortage was very substantial - there were 2.5 million refugees in Phnom Penh."

The other forced movements, said Koppe, were the responsibility of lower-level leaders, not of his client. As for the executions of former regime officials at Tuol Po Chrey, "my client is really very strong … saying there was no such policy" and that the leaders "wanted them to work in the cooperatives like everybody else."

Despite that, Koppe said, his client "was considered guilty before the building was even established in which we held the trial". So does he expect the judges will return next year with a life term for his client?

"I wouldn't be surprised," Koppe said. "Materially it doesn't really make any difference - my client is 87 years old. He has maybe one year to live, two years, three years, but it won't be many more so [any sentence] purely symbolic."

'They must be judged'

Khmer Rouge former president Khieu Samphan (front L) is seen at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in this handout picture dated October 31, 2013. The Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal is hearing closing arguments in the court's biggest case - known as Case 002 - after lengthy hearings into one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century. Between 1.7 and 2.2 million people died between 1975 and 1979 under the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime. (Photo: REUTERS/Mark Peterson/ECCC/Handout via Reuters)

Khieu Samphan said he had held no real power under the Khmer Rouge; a verdict is not expected until mid-2014

Over the nearly two-year period of this first mini-trial more than 100,000 people from across the country have attended the tribunal. On Thursday, hundreds more first-timers took their seats in the auditorium. Among them was 57-year-old Kim Buon Sambath.

When the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, Sambath was 18 and living in Phnom Penh. He was evicted from the capital along with his parents and brother. He never saw his father again. His mother starved to death, and his brother was arrested.

"To this day, I don't know where my brother is," he said.

Sambath said that on occasion over the past two years he followed the proceedings on television in his village in rural Pursat province. However seeing the trial in person was more valuable. On Thursday he watched as Nuon Chea - once one of Cambodia's most powerful men - sat only yards from him and tried to evade responsibility and secure his freedom.

"But he can't deny his role during the Khmer Rouge period," Sambath said. "Nuon Chea is responsible in the eyes of the victims and before the law."

Sambath said he was confident the court would deliver justice for victims like him, yet when asked what sentence he would like to see handed down, he insisted he had no term in mind: that was the prerogative of the judges.

"They must be judged according to national and international law," he told DW. "I am sure the court will issue a fair verdict."

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