Former Khmer Rouge leader defiant at tribunal in Cambodia

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan was defiant as he addressed the closing session of Cambodia's genocide tribunal in Phnom Penh on Friday, denying accusations that his former government was involved in genocide.

“The Communist Party of Kampuchea leaders did not exterminate our people,” he said, calling such claims "Vietnamese propaganda." 

Samphan, 85, and Nuon Chea, 90, were given an opportunity to address the court during Friday's closing session. Samphan argued that the regime’s infamous collective farms and worksites were a means to “urgently” rebuild a damaged country facing famine.

“In order to rebuild and defend our country, the only force we had was the strength of the people. The wish of the Communist Party of Kampuchea at the time was not to subject the population to slavery for the sole benefit of Pol Pot,” he told the court.

Samphan, head of state of what was then Democratic Kampuchea, spoke of the challenges facing Cambodia prior to the 1975 takeover by the Khmer Rouge, which included aerial bombardment by the US airforce as well as attempts by the Vietnamese Communist Party to subjugate their Cambodian counterparts.

The latest trial concerns crimes committed against ethnic minority Cham and Vietnamese, internal purges of Khmer Rouge cadres, forced labour at worksites, torture and detention at security centres, and the nationwide practice of forced marriage between 1975 and 1979.

Prior to Samphan’s address, Chea declined to speak to the court.

“Nuon Chea couldn’t care less if you convict him again of a life sentence,” defence lawyer Victor Koppe said. “He doesn’t care because, rightfully so, he doesn’t take this institution seriously.”

Chea, also known as “Brother Number Two,” hoped the court would translate the defence team’s closing brief into Khmer so the public would understand that the tribunal was working on behalf of “American and Vietnamese” interests, according to Koppe.

Friday marks the end of their trial, which began in 2011 but was divided into two sections due to the number of charges issued against them.

Both were convicted in 2014 for crimes against humanity over their roles in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and the execution of soldiers from the previous regime.

Under the Khmer Rouge, more than two million people died of starvation, disease, exhaustion or by execution as the radical communist group attempted to rebuild the country as a peasant utopia between 1975 and 1979.

Vietnam’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 remains a point of contention in Cambodia. Some Cambodians, including opposition leader Kem Sokha, have accused Vietnamese forces of faking evidence at sites like the infamous S-21 "torture centre" to justify their invasion. 

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