The Khmer Rouge were not “bad people”, the regime’s highest-ranking surviving member said on Monday as Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes tribunal began hearing evidence in a long-awaited atrocities trial.
“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, seen as the chief ideologue of the brutal 1970s movement, was the first of three accused to face questioning from judges in the proceedings.
The trial is seen as vital to finding some justice over the country’s “Killing Fields” era when up to two million people died, and hundreds of Cambodians packed the Phnom Penh courtroom to see Nuon Chea in the dock.
“I don’t want the next generations to misunderstand the history,” the 85-year-old said, without reading from a prepared statement.
“I don’t want them to misunderstand that the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals. Nothing is true about that,” he said, adding that he wanted to fight injustice and instead blamed Vietnamese aggressors for Cambodia’s suffering.
Nuon Chea and his co-defendants — former foreign minister Ieng Sary and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan — all deny charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, abolished money and religion and wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
“It was Vietnam who killed Cambodians,” Nuon Chea told the court, without clarifying which period in history he was referring to.
He also pointed the finger at rogue elements, or “bandits”, who had infiltrated the Khmer Rouge before the movement came to power and were responsible for arrests and mass purges.
Owing to fears that not all of the ailing accused, who are in their 80s, will live to see a verdict, the court recently split their complex case into a series of smaller trials.
In this first session, it will focus only on the forced movement of the population and related crimes against humanity.
“I have devoted myself to serving the country,” Pol Pot’s right-hand man told the court, adding that he first became interested in communism while studying in Thailand in the late 1940s when he noticed “injustice was everywhere”.
Khieu Samphan is expected to give evidence in the trial, the court’s second, at some point in the next two weeks. He has previously said he was a patriot who was unaware of the mass killings going on.
Ieng Sary has stated that he does not wish to testify during his trial.
Absent from the proceedings is fourth co-accused Ieng Thirith — the regime’s “First Lady” and the only female leader to be charged by the court — after she was ruled unfit for trial last month because she has dementia.
In its first trial, the tribunal sentenced Khmer Rouge jailer Duch to 30 years in jail last year for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people. The case is now under appeal.