‘We were not bad people’ says Khmer Rouge deputy

THE second-in-command of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime has told a court he and his comrades were not “bad people”, denying responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians during their 1970s rule.

Nuon Chea’s statement yesterday came as the UN-backed tribunal began questioning him for the first time since the long-awaited trial of three top regime leaders began late last month. They are accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture stemming from the group’s 1975-79 reign of terror. All have denied wrongdoing.

The deputy of the late Pol Pot, Nuon Chea blamed neighbouring Vietnam for the atrocities, reiterating long-standing Khmer Rouge claims that the mass graves discovered subsequently were of people killed by Vietnamese armed forces.

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This week the court is expected to focus on charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity. After the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on 17 April, 1975, they began moving an estimated one million people – including hospital patients – from the capital into the countryside in an effort to create a communist agrarian utopia.

After a court clerk read a background piece on the Khmer Rouge and the three defendants, Nuon Chea, 85, defended the notoriously brutal movement.

He said: “I don’t want the next generation to misunderstand history. I don’t want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals. Nothing is true about that.”

The one-time ideologist-in-chief for the communist movement insisted that no Cambodian was responsible for atrocities during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

He said: “These war crimes and crimes against humanity were not committed by the Cambodian people. It was the Vietnamese who killed Cambodians.”

Vietnam, whose border region suffered bloody attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sponsored a resistance movement and invaded, toppling the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installing a client regime.

When a judge asked about the background of Khmer Rouge party, Nuon Chea said it had been set up to liberate the country from the rich and powerful.

The other defendants are Khieu Samphan, 80, a former head of state who told the court last month he bore no responsibility for atrocities, and Ieng Sary, 86, who has said he will not participate in the trial until a ruling is issued on a pardon he received in 1996.

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Pol Pot died in 1998 in Cambodia’s jungles, and a fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, 79, was ruled unfit to stand trial because she has Alzheimer’s disease. She is Ieng Sary’s wife and was the regime’s minister for social affairs.

The tribunal is seeking justice on behalf of the estimated quarter of Cambodia’s population who died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork under the Khmer Rouge.

Yesterday, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said: “This is the first time the accused persons will be asked questions in a public hearing about their role in the events that led to the takeover of Phnom Penh on 17 April, 1975 and about the policies of the Khmer Rouge.”

He added that the initial testimony will take several days. After the accused have been questioned, witnesses and civil parties will then testify.

So far the tribunal, established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison, last year and sentencing him to 35 years in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offences. However, his sentence was reduced to 19 years due to time served,