Khmer Rouge leaders begin appeal hearings
PHNOM PENH - Agence France-Presse
This handout photo taken and released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on July 2, 2015 shows former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (R) sitting in the courtroom at the ECCC in Phnom Penh. AFP PhotoTwo former Khmer Rouge leaders on July 2 began appeal hearings against landmark convictions for crimes against humanity last year which saw them handed life sentences by Cambodia's UN-backed court.
"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 88, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 83, were the first top leaders to be jailed from a regime responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians from 1975-1979.
But their lawyers quickly appealed, accusing the court of a string of errors and the judges of failing to remain impartial due to their personal experiences under the communist regime.
The pair sat in court on July 2 when Nuon Chea's lawyers called upon their first witness, as 300 people watched the proceedings from the public gallery.
Sao Van, formerly a local Khmer Rouge chief, described a different picture of life under the communist rulers who dismantled modern society in their quest for an agrarian utopia and wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population through starvation or execution at forced labour camps.
He claimed that by 1977 there were sufficient food rations for everyone in his sub-district in southern Kandal province as the regime established "collective cooperation and communal dining".
"There was no instruction for the cadre to starve people. In fact, it was on the contrary. If any cadre failed to resolve livelihood issues in their area then they were subject to disciplinary action," the 74-year-old said.
Nuon Chea, wearing his trademark sunglasses, left the room during questioning to watch the hearing remotely from a holding cell, with his lawyers saying he had back pain.
The tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is a complex hybrid court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh combining elements of international and domestic law.
It was set up following an agreement between Cambodia and the UN to prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders "most responsible" for the regime's crimes with both Cambodian and international judges.
There are four Cambodian judges and three international judges in the Supreme Court Chamber of the ECCC where the appeal is being heard. In order to reach a judgement, at least five out of seven judges must vote in accord.
The complex case against Chea and Khieu Samphan was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 for reasons including their advanced age and the large number of accusations.
Their convictions in August followed a two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of around two million Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps and the murders of hundreds of soldiers from the government the regime ousted at one of several execution sites.
On July 2 Sao Van said he had attended meetings with senior regime officials and had heard "no order to harm soldiers" from the previous administration.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are also undergoing a second trial for genocide centred on the killing of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, forced marriage and rape.
In its historic debut trial, the UN-backed court in 2010 sentenced former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to 30 years in prison -- later increased on appeal to life -- for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.
"Brother Number One" Pol Pot who led the brutal regime died in 1998 without ever facing justice.
In March, the court charged three more former Khmer Rouge members with crimes against humanity, ignoring warnings by strongman Cambodian premier Hun Sen -- a mid-ranking regime cadre before he defected -- that further prosecutions risked reigniting conflict.
The court will hear from a further two witnesses, including another Khmer Rouge official, requested by Nuon Chea's legal team during hearings scheduled over the next two weeks.
According to a tribunal document, appeal judgements are expected during the first quarter of 2016.