22 Dec

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“The [Communist Party of Kampuchea] liberated people from slavery,” Nuon Chea says from the stand. Hunched in his wheelchair, the 87-year-old revolutionary speaks with a quiet intensity that hushes the public gallery. For the past two years, he has listened to dozens of witnesses describe the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 reign – a period in which an estimated 1.7 million people (nearly a quarter of the population at the time) died from hunger, disease, and the executioner’s hand as the regime sought to violently restructure Cambodian society. To Nuon Chea, however, this was an era in which a group of visionaries and patriots attempted to transform their war-torn country into an agrarian utopia.

Nuon Chea was deputy secretary of the of Communist Party of Kampuchea and Pol Pot’s right-hand man. He is the highest-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge to be brought before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal was established in 2006 by the Cambodian government and the United Nations to try senior members of the long-toppled Khmer Rouge with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. For years, the ECCC has been plagued by financial woes and accusations of government interference.

Citing poor health, Nuon Chea has opted to watch most of the proceedings from a holding cell in the court’s basement. When he does emerge, he usually wears faux tortoiseshell sunglasses and a puckered thin-lipped scowl that oozes contempt. But on this day – Oct. 31st, the last day of hearings in the first segment of the case against him – Nuon Chea dons reading glasses and look of earnestness as he delivers his final statement. It is the first time he has addressed the court in months… And it could be the last.

Nuon Chea declares his “innocence and integrity” and states that “the CPK did not design any plan or policy to kill people…  it had planned to increase population, and not to reduce it.” He goes on to explain how his noble revolution was undermined by Vietnamese agent provocateurs – the very people who control Cambodia’s government today. He tells the courtroom that he loves his people and is “morally responsible” for not being aware of, and not doing enough to contain the violence wayward cadre caused. One gets the sense that the old man believes what he says – and that he wishes he would have purged more when he still had the chance.

Draped in black robes, Nuon Chea’s lawyers, Cambodian Son Arun and Dutchman Victor Koppe, watch intently as their client finishes the carefully prepared statement.

“I can see that justice is circumstantial, but reality remains unchanged forever,” Nuon Chea concludes. “I respectfully submit to your honours to acquit me from all the charges and accordingly release me.”


For more on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the team that is defending Nuon Chea, see “The Devil’s Advocates” in The Diplomat. Son Arun’s fascinating life story is explored in “The Major and the Monster” in the December issue of the Southeast Asia Globe.

The Diplomat
December 20, 2013

Southeast Asia Globe
December 2013


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