Four top members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge are on trial on charges including crimes against humanity and genocide.
A former senior figure within Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge has told a court he and his comrades were not “bad people,” denying the regime’s responsibility for the deaths of 1.7 million people during their 1970s rule and blaming Vietnam for any atrocities.
Nuon Chea’s defiant statements came as a UN-backed tribunal began questioning him and two other Khmer Rouge leaders in court for the first time on Monday.
The long-awaited trial began late last month with opening statements, and this week the court is expected to focus on charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity.
After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they began moving an estimated one million people from the capital into the countryside in an effort to create a communist agrarian utopia.
‘Not bad people’
After a court clerk read a background of the Khmer Rouge and the three defendants, Nuon Chea defended the notoriously brutal former movement, in which he was the No. 2 leader behind the late Pol Pot.
“I don’t want the next generation to misunderstand history. I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminal,” Nuon Chea said. “Nothing is true about that.”
The 85-year-old, considered the Khmer Rouge’s one-time chief ideologist, instead said no Cambodian was responsible for atrocities during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 reign, reiterating a claim that neighbouring Vietnam instead was responsible for mass killings.
Vietnam, whose border suffered bloody attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sponsored a resistance movement and invaded, toppling the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installing a client regime.
“These war crimes and crimes against humanity were not committed by the Cambodian people,” Nuon Chea said. “It was the Vietnamese who killed Cambodians.”
The trio of defendants are accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture stemming from the group’s 1975-79 reign of terror. All have denied wrongdoing.
The other two are Khieu Samphan, an 80-year-old former head of state who also told the court in November he bore no responsibility for atrocities, and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, who has said he will not participate in the trial until a ruling is issued on a pardon he received in 1996.
The tribunal previously ruled the pardon does not cover its indictment against him.
Anne Heindel, a legal adviser for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, told Al Jazeera that it is uncertain how much further the defendants would participate in the trial.
“They did all give opening statements last week, which was very significant for the victims to hear. They want to hear directly from the accused, some of whom have indicated that they will not participate moving forward, or will only do so in a limited fashion, which would obviously be very disappointing to survivors.
There is also concern that the accused could pass away before justice is achieved.
The Khmer Rouge’s supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in Cambodia’s jungles, and a fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer’s disease. She is Ieng Sary’s wife and served as the regime’s minister for social affairs.
An estimated quarter of Cambodia’s population died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork under the Khmer Rouge’s rule.
The tribunal, established in 2006, has so far tried just one case, convicting Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison, last year and sentencing him to 35 years in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses.
His sentence was reduced to 19 years due to time served and other technicalities.
That case was seen as much simpler than those currently before the court, in part because Kaing Guek Eav confessed to his crimes.
Chum Mey, 80, one of only two survivors of the S-21 prison, said he doesn’t believe the three defendants will tell the truth about what happened in the 1970s.
“During last month’s sessions we heard them say only that their regime was good and worked for the entire people,” Chum Mey said.