Ex-head of state Khieu Samphan is on trial along with two other defendants on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide over the deaths of up to two million people during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign of terror.
Prosecutors opening the long-awaited trial this week have told the packed courtroom of the horrors inflicted in the “Killing Fields” era, describing the defendants as “common murderers” of a whole generation of Cambodians.
“You seem to want everybody to listen to your fairytales,” 80-year-old Khieu Samphan responded during his hour-long opening statement from the dock of the Phnom Penh tribunal.
“I have the feeling that you really want my head on the block.”
Khieu Samphan, “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary all deny the charges against them relating to the hardline communist regime.
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 in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
Nuon Chea on Tuesday also rejected the allegations against him, claiming he had served “the nation and the people” by defending Cambodia from Vietnamese aggressors.
In a similar vein, Khieu Samphan said he was acting to “defend my country” after a 1970 coup that installed a US-friendly government led by Lon Nol.
“Regardless of whether you like or dislike it, the majority of Cambodian people gave their support to us for our opposition to the Lon Nol regime,” he said.
Third defendant Ieng Sary, the international face of the secretive regime, also took the stand on Wednesday, despite earlier saying he would not speak during his trial.
Sitting in a wheelchair, the frail-looking 86-year-old said he would take part although he disagreed with the court’s ruling that a royal pardon and amnesty granted to him in 1996 did not bar him from further prosecution.
The trio’s case, the tribunal’s second and most important, is seen as vital to healing wounds in the still-traumatised nation.
Missing from the courtroom is the fourth 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 week because she has dementia.