A top leader of Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge on Thursday for the first time accepted responsibility for the deaths of millions during the regime’s reign of terror in the 1970s.
The 86-year-old Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two” after former regime chief Pol Pot, took responsibility and offered an apology to families of the victims of the regime’s atrocities while testifying before a U.N.-backed tribunal where he is being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He expressed remorse for the bloodshed committed under his leadership while addressing questions from the families of victims alongside co-defendant Khieu Samphan, the former head of state for the Marxist agrarian movement.
“As a leader, I must be responsible. I accept that responsibility with all my heart,” Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s main ideologist, told the group of so-called civil parties who are representing victims’ families at the trial. He was testifying from his prison cell by video because of poor health.
Both top officials had previously denied all responsibility for the deaths of up to 2 million people during Khmer Rouge rule between 1975-1979, and Nuon Chea maintained that he only played a proxy role in the decision to carry out the killings.
“As I have said before, I wasn’t in charge of the Khmer Rouge executive branch. My role was only to educate the people and to devise party propaganda,” he said, adding that he hadn’t officially been given a central role in the regime before it was toppled by a Vietnamese invasion.
But he apologized to the families of the victims at the court for their losses.
“I would like to express my condolences to the civil parties. I would like to pay my respects to the souls of your mothers, fathers, children and your relatives—who are also my relatives.”
Civil parties speak
Witnesses representing four former Khmer Rouge victims spoke at Thursday’s hearing at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the war tribunal is known, about the suffering their families endured during the regime.
Bo Dina told the court about how her husband had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge forced him to undergo reeducation.
Another witness, Nou Hun, described how he had lost his daughter and other relatives when they were evacuated from the capital Phnom Penh in 1975.
Nou Hon asked the defendants how it was possible that they were unaware of the killings when even Khmer Rouge officials were being executed as part of party purges, and why the regime had chosen to wipe out the people of Cambodia when it claimed to be trying to protect the country’s sovereignty.
In response to Nou Hun’s questions, Khieu Samphan insisted that he had no knowledge of what was happening within the Khmer Rouge.
“I would like to tell you that I honestly didn’t know … because I was not a leader of Democratic Kampuchea, I was just an intellectual,” he said.
“At that time, people regarded me as a soft-minded person so [the leaders] would only tell me that things were good and held back information about the bad things that were happening.”
Khieu Samphan said that he “accidently” joined the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to “liberate the country.”
“I believed that joining the struggle was for the good of the country’s survival … At the time, our country was affected by war, so I joined the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to kill people—it wasn’t something that I could do. And those who killed your relatives I believe must be brought justice. We must find them.”
Khieu Samphan called the killings “acts of stupidity” committed by a group of people who saw themselves as “kings of the region” and called for a further investigation into those responsible, but continued to deny any knowledge of the executions at the time.
Nuan Chea and Khieu Samphan are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide, and torture, but have never accepted legal responsibility for their roles in the regime—an admission many victims have been waiting more than 30 years to hear.
Their trial began in 2011 along with co-defendants Ieng Sary—the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister—and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who had worked as the movement’s social affairs minister.
Ieng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial last year due to Alzheimer’s disease and Ieng Sary died in March. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998.
Critics of the tribunal say that a trial process slowed by inefficiency, corruption, and resistance from the Cambodian government may never see the elderly defendants brought to justice.
The ECCC was established in 2005, but to date has only delivered one verdict—a life sentence given to Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who oversaw Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh where as many as 14,000 people are believed to have been executed.
Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.