Standing in an air-conditioned courtroom on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, an aging former Khmer Rouge figure accused of genocide offered few words as he asked for his release.
“I only have one suggestion,” said Khieu Samphan, dressed neatly in a button-down shirt. “Please abide by the law.”
More than three years after their arrests, three former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of crimes against humanity and genocide asked a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal on Monday to release them ahead of their pending trials.
Lawyers for Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state; Nuon Chea, its chief ideologue; and Ieng Thirith, a former cabinet minister, are arguing they should be released after having been kept in pre-trial detention since their arrests in 2007. A fourth co-defendant, former foreign affairs minister Ieng Sary, did not appear in court.
Observers say releasing the accused, though unlikely, could ignite public outrage in this South-east Asian country. The Khmer Rouge movement was responsible for the deaths of at least an estimated 1.7 million people. But more than 30 years after the regime was toppled, senior leaders have yet to stand trial before a UN-backed court.
Lawyers for the three accused argued Monday that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the hybrid tribunal is officially called, is bound by its rules to release them in advance of their trials. The court officially indicted the four accused last September.
The lawyers claim that any detention exceeding the four months that have since passed is illegal.
Court officials have not specified a date for the trials, but have indicated they are expected to take place this year.
Sa Sovan, a lawyer acting for Khieu Samphan, noted the court has extended his client’s detention period numerous times since his 2007 arrest.
“There are no grounds to continue his detention any longer,” he said.
Son Arun, a lawyer for Nuon Chea, said his client has no intention of fleeing the country if released. On the contrary, he argued, he is eager to testify and explain his side of the story.
“Nuon Chea has indicated again and again that he wishes to participate and cooperate with the court,” Arun said. “He would like to live with his family and he does not intend to run away.”
Court prosecutors, however, argued against releasing the accused, suggesting they had many reasons to flee, and that authorities may not be able to guarantee their safety outside the confines of the court complex.
“The passage of time has not diminished the impact of these crimes,” co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley said. “If anything, it has increased the impact of these crimes. There are many members of the Khmer population who are suffering from psychiatric disorders as a result of their experiences during this appalling time.”
Old age, ill health
But Monday’s rare joint appearance by three of the accused also underscored how long it has taken for Cambodians to see justice for the Khmer Rouge years. The four co-defendants are accused of being part of a leadership group that oversaw egregious crimes committed more than three decades ago. Today, they are aging and frail.
The youngest, Ieng Thirith, turns 79 this year. She quietly left the courtroom early on in proceedings Monday. Nuon Chea, 84, sought medical attention after complaining of dizziness.
“She can barely walk,” lawyer Phat Pouv Seang said of Ieng Thirith, “let alone cause any disturbance to the public order.”
In January, co-defendant Ieng Sary asked the court to permit half-day sessions when the trial gets underway, citing his “age and ill health”.
Court observer Panhavuth Long, a programme officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said he believed the accused are acting within their rights by asking to be released. Seeing the aged defendants Monday should come as a reminder that the tribunal must not lose momentum in pursuing prosecution.
“The testimony of the accused can shed light on the history,” he said. “It may enable us to understand more about the regime and also to understand the personalities of the accused.”
And for many victims of the regime, it is the testimony of the four accused, as much as any verdict, that will determine what value the tribunal holds, he said.
“We really want the trial to be up and running very soon. If they die, they bring with them the truth,” he said.
If the court were to release the accused before the trial, it would come as a shock to a Cambodian public eager for justice, said another observer.
“If they are released, it would be a stunning moment for the whole nation,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.
But he said many people here have already come to their own conclusions.
“Each of the survivors has their own judgement, no matter what the court has to say about it,” Youk said.
“The truth about [the defendants] is the crimes they have committed against the people of Cambodia. This kind of truth will never set them free.”
The court is expected to rule on the co-defendants’ release bids within 30 days.
The case represents the second trial as part of the court’s mandate. Last July, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role as head of the notorious S-21 detention centre, though the sentence was reduced by 16 years because of time already served and illegal detention.
A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service.