PHNOM PENH – The last two surviving leaders of Cambodia’s radical Khmer Rouge regime still on trial for genocide and other war crimes issued their final defense Thursday, distancing themselves from the deaths of more than 1.7 million people who died during their rule.
Former head of state Khieu Samphan, 87, and 82-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, both made lengthy closing statements at the U.N.-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh.
A verdict is not expected in the case until the first half of next year, more than two years after the trial began.
Shortly after seizing Phnom Penh in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced an estimated 1 million people — even hospital patients — out of the capital, herding them en masse into the countryside in an effort to create a communist agrarian utopia.
By the time the bizarre experiment ended in 1979 with a Vietnamese invasion, close to 2 million people were dead, most from starvation, medical neglect, slavelike working conditions and execution. Their bodies were dumped in shallow mass graves that still dot the country today.
“It is easy to say that I should have known everything, I should have understood everything, and thus I could have intervened or rectified the situation at the time,” Khieu Samphan defiantly told the court. “Do you really think that that was what I wanted to happen to my people?”
“The reality was that I did not have any power,” he said.
Nuon Chea also defended his actions, saying he never ordered Khmer Rouge cadres “to mistreat or kill people to deprive them of food or commit any genocide.”
Unlike Khieu Samphan, however, Nuon Chea accepted “moral responsibility” for the deaths, repeating previous efforts to distance himself from actual crimes.
“I would like to sincerely apologize to the public, the victims, the families, and all Cambodian people,” said the frail former leader, speaking steadily as he read from pages of notes. “I wish to show my remorse and pray for the lost souls that occurred by any means” during the Khmer Rouge rule.
Nuon Chea’s words are unlikely to be any consolation for survivors, hundreds of whom crowded the courtroom and the tribunal’s grounds.
“He is just trying to cheat the court so that he can be freed,” said Bin Siv Lang, a 56-year-old woman who lost 11 relatives during the Khmer Rouge rule. “If he issued no orders to kill people, his subordinates would not have killed.”
Death and disability have robbed the tribunal of other defendants. Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial in September 2012 after being diagnosed with dementia. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
The tribunal, launched in 2006, so far has convicted only one defendant, Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
The present trial’s focus is on the forced movement of people and excludes some of the gravest charges related to genocide, detention centers and killings.
Nuon Chea said he believed his trial proved he “was not engaged in any commission of the crimes as alleged by the co-prosecutors. . . . In short, I am innocent.”
Khieu Samphan said bitterly that he had lost faith in the tribunal because “no matter how hard I try to explain, they (the court’s judges) will only turn their deaf ears at me.”
“It is clear that everyone wants only one thing from me — that is, my admission of guilt . .. concerning the acts that I have never ever committed at all.”