PHNOM PENH – The Khmer Rouge’s former No. 2 admitted for the first time Thursday that he shared responsibility for the actions of a regime blamed for the deaths of up to 2 million people in the late 1970s.
“I am not trying to evade my responsibility,” Nuon Chea, 86, who has denied charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, said during his trial at a U.N.-backed court.
“As a leader, I must take responsibility for the damage, the danger to my nation,” he said, expressing his “deepest condolences” to witnesses testifying at the tribunal in Phnom Penh who lost relatives under the regime.
At the same time, Nuon Chea said he was not aware of all of the Khmer Rouge’s actions in his role overseeing propaganda and education.
“As for the executive branch, I had no power whatsoever. So about what happened during the Khmer Rouge period, certain things I was aware of, but other things I was not aware of,” he said.
His remarks came after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Parliament on Monday that he wants a law to punish people who deny that atrocities occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime, apparently trying to link his political opponents to the widely despised movement.
Hun Sen, an authoritarian elected leader, was once a Khmer Rouge cadre himself.
Nuon Chea, the most senior surviving leader of the “killing fields” era, is currently on trial alongside former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, who has also denied charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Khieu Samphan told the court Thursday that he was not aware at the time of the “great suffering” of the Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. He also expressed a “sincere apology” to the victims as he tried to distance himself from the regime’s actions.
The Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.