Cambodia's war crimes court concluded its first week of evidence hearings with Pol Pot's former deputy Nuon Chea blaming Vietnam. The age and health of defendants and witnesses meant some sessions ended early.
Nuon Chea refuses to accept any responsibility for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge
During this week's testimony in Phnom Penh, Nuon Chea, the man known as Brother Number Two for his deputy leadership in Cambodia’s communist party, rejected all responsibility for the mass criminality that characterized the Khmer Rouge's rule.
"Everything was under the control of Vietnam, from the Hanoi headquarters, from the Ho Chi Minh headquarters," he said. "So these crimes - war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide - were not (committed by) Cambodian people. It was Vietnam who killed Cambodians."
Nuon Chea and two other leaders are accused by the UN-backed tribunal of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in devising the policies that led to as many as 2.2 million deaths between 1975 and 1979.
Nuon Chea, who has long been a vitriolic critic of Vietnam, told the court he had become fearful of its intentions in the early 1950s while studying in Hanoi. It was then that he became aware, as he put it, that Vietnam wanted to swallow Cambodia as a python would swallow a young deer.
"I was so disappointed because I was fighting very hard against the French for independence, but what would be independence under the control of another country?" he asked.
'Nothing is true'
Nuon Chea says all the blame lies with Vietnam
Nuon Chea recalled what had motivated him to join the revolution. "When I was young I lived under the French colony (and) I witnessed with my own eyes the mistreatment of the French toward Cambodian people," he said. "People were beaten, arrested and imprisoned, and I also witnessed (how) the rich (Cambodians) mistreated other people (and) treated them as slaves."
"I don't want (the next generations to think) that the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals. Nothing is true about that," he asserted.
Neither he nor his co-defendants - former head of state Khieu Samphan and foreign minister Ieng Sary - were to blame, he told the court. There were, he conceded, some "bad elements" within the party who had deliberately tried to tarnish the revolution by killing their fellow Cambodians, but Vietnam was the main culprit.
Audience rejects testimony
Survivors of Khmer Rouge prisons want justice
It is hard to know how Nuon Chea's message went down in Cambodia, but inside the courtroom his insistence that the leaders had clean hands left some in the 500-seater auditorium angry, and caused others to laugh out loud.
Lay Pheng was among the millions forced out of the cities and towns when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in April 1975. He was forced into the countryside, but the following year he and his wife managed to escape to Vietnam where they found sanctuary. Every member of his wife's family was killed.
The 62-year-old said Nuon Chea's accusations are simply "not true." On the contrary, he stated, the Khmer Rouge also killed many Vietnamese civilians and soldiers.
"I want the court to sentence the Khmer Rouge leaders and deliver justice for the people that were killed so they can find peace," he said at the tribunal.
Foreign ministry staff would 'tremble'
Ieng Sary's frequent speeches about CIA or KGB spies made foreign ministry staff 'tremble'
Much of the rest of this first week of evidence hearing was taken up with testimony from a former aide to Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, Long Norin, who appeared by video-link from a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in western Cambodia.
But Long Norin's testimony was often wayward and at times patently untrue. He also claimed to have forgotten numerous events contained in a written statement he had given to the court in 2007.
The prosecution eventually asked him whether he had decided not to speak about his former boss, saying he was displaying "a clear reluctance" to testify. "No, no, I am not at all reluctant," Long Norin answered. "If I could recall, I would tell all that I can remember."
One of the most significant contradictions surrounded the disappearance from the foreign ministry of staff who came under suspicion during the Khmer Rouge's ongoing purges against suspected enemies within the ranks of the revolution.
Although Long Norin initially said that "nothing noticeable" had happened at the time he did later admit that ministry employees were fearful after colleagues taken away for "study sessions" failed to reappear. He added that Ieng Sary's frequent speeches describing those who had been taken away as CIA or KGB spies made ministry staff "tremble."
Ill health and advanced years
One of the key issues the first week of evidence hearing illuminated was the effect that the health and advanced years of the defendants, the witnesses and the civil parties will have on proceedings that are expected to last two years.
On Wednesday the tribunal pushed back the appearance of three civil parties citing ill health, and another witness lasted just an hour on the stand that day before retiring.
That prompted court president Nil Nonn to note that the condition of many of those involved meant "unexpected things may happen." His comment proved prescient given that Friday's specially-scheduled session to conclude Long Norin's testimony was over before it began when the witness announced that he was not up to speaking.
The court is scheduled to resume hearing evidence on Tuesday.
Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Anne Thomas