Cambodia's war crimes court has heard opening arguments in the long-awaited trial of three surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement. The defendants and their lawyers rejected the prosecution's case as 'a fairytale.'
The first mini-trial is expected to last two years
In a period of just 24 hours, Cambodians were treated to the highly unusual sight of three ex-leaders, who are held responsible for around two million deaths, justifying their roles in the country's murderous Khmer Rouge movement, that ruled from 1975 to 1979.
They are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, accused of devising the policies that led to the deaths of around one in four Cambodians.
Former foreign minister Ieng Sary, at 86 the oldest defendant, spoke for just a few minutes to complain that the tribunal had ignored the pardon and amnesty he had been awarded by the government in 1996 to get him and thousands of followers to defect.
'Vietnam to blame'
Ieng Sary complained the court had ignored a pardon he was granted in the 1990s
Ieng Sary's two co-defendants had much more to say, however.
On Tuesday, Nuon Chea, the man known as Brother Number Two for his position as deputy of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), held court for 90 minutes as he energetically blamed an old enemy.
"The Vietnamese factor is the main factor that caused confusion in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979," he said, removing his trademark sunglasses to read his prepared remarks.
Hanoi, he added, had long wanted to rule Cambodia and exterminate its people, and it was this that had led him to undertake his patriotic struggle.
"I had to leave my family to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the forces and the thieves who wished to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the world," he said.
Nuon Chea rejected as "untrue" the prosecution's assertions that he had a key role in the regime’s acts of massive criminality and used most of his allotted time to outline some of the decisions that the leaders reached in key strategy meetings during their run-up to taking power in 1975.
'Murderers of an entire generation'
On Monday and Tuesday, the prosecution outlined its case, with international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley describing the accused as "thieves of time and common murderers of an entire generation of Cambodians."
"They robbed decades of development and prosperity from this country. They left gaping holes in every Cambodian family. They removed all breath from notions such as law and civilized behavior," he told the court in his opening statement.
And Cayley pointed out that the scale of the killing - one in four Cambodians dead in less than four years - had "no parallel in the modern era."
Perceived enemies were interrogated and tortured in a network of security centers
The prosecution said it would show that the criminality was "not accidental, nor did it just happen" but had been planned years before the Khmer Rouge grabbed control of Cambodia, at which point it enslaved the population, emptied the cities, and put everyone to work on vast agricultural cooperatives and worksites where countless thousands died of execution, starvation, overwork and disease.
The movement also established a network of security centers where its perceived enemies were taken to be interrogated and then executed for their supposed efforts to undermine the revolution, a paranoia that the leadership deliberately fed through regular circulars and the party journal 'Revolutionary Flag' in which the consistent message was: "The necessity to identify and smash enemies of the party."
"The accused believed that previous communist revolutions had failed because class enemies had infiltrated and corrupted those revolutions. The solution the accused seized upon was simply to liquidate all class enemies in their entirety," Cayley said, adding that this policy - upon which the leaders had agreed in 1960 - continued even after it seized power.
"At which time it became a means to protect the power now held by CPK leaders against all Cambodians who actually or potentially opposed, disagreed or failed to comply with their political agenda," he said.
On Wednesday, former head of state Khieu Samphan took the prosecution to task for its "monumentally biased" case against him. As he scolded the two lead prosecutors, he described their work as "a fairytale" full of guesswork, generalizations and "peremptory claims."
"When listening to (your case) based on these senseless stories in order to convince people to believe that they are the truth, I have the feeling that you really want my head on a block," he said.
Khieu Samphan described as "absurd" the prosecution's statement that his regular visits to the huge worksites around the country meant he must have known of the executions and abuses taking place.
"Do you really think … that when I visited these worksites … workers were being murdered in front of us with hoes or bullets in the back of the neck?" he asked.
Victims worry the accused will die before the trial is over
He also pointed out that the illegal United States bombing of Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant "the majority of the Cambodian people gave us their support" to fight the US-backed Lon Nol regime that took power in 1970 "whether you like it or not."
The court will now resume on December 5 when it begins hearing evidence against the three accused.
The prosecution will argue that the leaders were behind five core policies of criminality: the forced movement of the urban population to rural areas; the enslavement of the entire population; the use of violence to eliminate its enemies; targeting specific groups including Buddhist monks, Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese; and using forced marriage to boost the population.
Those policies led to crimes - all of which the accused deny - including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, forced marriage and deportation.
Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Anne Thomas