Facing genocide charges, the former second-in-command of Cambodia’s bloody Khmer Rouge regime on Tuesday defended the movement’s ruthless policies at a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, saying they were needed to protect the country against invasion from neighboring Vietnam.
Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two,” rejected charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide as he took the stand at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which the tribunal is formally called.
In addition to the 84-year-old Nuon Chea, also on trial are former head of state Khieu Samphan, 79, and foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86. Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, 78, who was minister for social affairs, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week due to health concerns.
"My position in the revolution was to serve the interests of the nation and people," Nuon Chea said.
"Oppression, injustice compelled me to devote myself to fight for my country. I had to leave my family behind to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression, and oppression by the thieves who wished to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the earth," he told the court.
Vietnam wanted to "swallow" Cambodia, Nuon Chea said.
"The army of the communist party of Vietnam and Vietnam cadres still remain discreetly on Cambodian soil ... with the ambition of occupying, swallowing Cambodia and getting rid of Cambodia, of her race and ethnicity, bringing in Vietnamese immigrants illegally to live in Cambodia to this day."
An estimated 1.7 million people, or one in four Cambodians, died in what has been known as the “Killing Fields” after the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The regime was unseated when Vietnam invaded the country four years later.
Nuon Chea displayed no emotion when prosecutors showed the court footage of him taken from the 2009 documentary "Enemies of the People," to support their claim that the Khmer Rouge had introduced a campaign to purge their enemies and those it regarded as disloyal.
"If these traitors were alive, the Khmers as a people would have been finished so I dare to suggest our decision was the right one," Nuon Chea said in the clip, taken from an interview conducted between 2001 and his arrest in 2007.
"If we had shown mercy to the people, the nation would have been lost."
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley called Nuon Chea and his two co-defendants “thieves of time" and "common murderers" of a whole generation of Cambodians.
"No one in this country is left unhurt or unaffected by what these three elderly men have done."
The tribunal, dogged by allegations of corruption and inefficiency since it was established seven years ago, has so far completed just one trial which led to the jailing last year of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, for 30 years for overseeing the deaths of thousands of people. His case is now under appeal.
Many of the defendants are elderly and infirm, and observers fear that not all of them will live to see a verdict.
Last month, Siegfried Blunk, the tribunal's international co-investigating judge, resigned citing interference by Hun Sen's government, though several rights groups and Khmer Rouge victims had earlier demanded he step down for “bowing to political pressure” in his handling of the trial process.
Rowan Downing and Katinka Lahuis, the two international judges on a tribunal chamber that rules on disputes while a case is still under investigation, had listed a string of questionable actions by Blunk and his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng in a 12-page minority decision.
Downing and Lahuis said the two had backdated documents, inexplicably refused to recognize civil-party lawyers, prevented civil-party lawyers from accessing the case file despite repeated requests and, in so doing, denied victims the “fundamental right to legal representation.”
They also suggested that the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges had made many mistakes under the management of Blunk and You and should reconsider the two judges’ rejection of a civil party application by New Zealand national Robert Hamill.
Hamill’s brother was said to have been tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.
The U.N. Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs, Patricia O'Brien, visited Cambodia last month and urged the government to "refrain from interfering in any way whatsoever with the judicial process."
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly denied any interference in the tribunal proceedings.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the tribunal beyond the second trial.
The ECCC recently rejected a third high-profile case but offered no explanation, drawing ire from rights groups.
Reported byRFA’s Khmer service. Written in English with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes.