Jailed Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan denies being part of killing machine

Khieu Samphan said claims he was part of the Khmer Rouge killing machine were 'fairy tales', despite his top role during 1970s genocide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 8:23am

As the Khmer Rouge's head of state, Khieu Samphan was one of the few public faces of the brutal Cambodian regime.

The 83-year-old insisted he was not part of the Khmer Rouge killing machine - but could end his days in prison after he was jailed for life for crimes against humanity.

Throughout his trial, the French-educated radical denied playing a prominent role in a regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million people in the late 1970s, saying he was kept out of leader Pol Pot's inner circle.

But he was jailed for life yesterday alongside "Brother No2" Nuon Chea, 88, by Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court. Lawyers for the pair - the most senior surviving ex-Khmer Rouge officials - say they will appeal.

During the trial Khieu Samphan had accused the prosecution of telling "fairy tales".

"The reality was that I did not have any power and I did not care about it either," he said.

But he and Nuon Chea were accused by prosecutors of "spilling blood for power".

The ruling is likely to bring a level of relief to those who survived the Khmer Rouge years, which saw Cambodians wiped out by starvation, overwork, torture and execution.

"This is the justice that I have been waiting for these last 35 years," said Khieu Pheatarak, one of around 900 Cambodians at the court to hear the verdict.

Khieu Pheatarak was among hundreds of thousands forced from their homes in the capital in 1975 by gun-toting cadres.

"I will never forget the suffering but this is a great relief for me. It is a victory and an historic day for all Cambodians," said the 70-year-old, who lost 20 family members including her husband and five siblings to the regime.

Like most Khmer Rouge leaders at the height of the regime's power, Khieu Samphan was a shadowy figure, his identity cloaked by the secrecy of the movement's inner circles.

But as the Khmer Rouge struggled for power in the civil war that followed their overthrow in 1979, he became the public face of the movement as it sought international credibility.

In the 1980s he held positions as prime minister of the communist government-in-exile and president of the party.

He was promoted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc as a moderate voice of the regime.

A key player in peace talks in the early 1990s, Khieu Samphan remained the Khmer Rouge's most public figure until defecting from the then-dying movement in 1998 with Nuon Chea.

Born in 1931 in Cambodia's southeastern Svay Rieng province, Khieu Samphan was highly educated, graduating from high school and university in France. He returned to join Cambodia's renaissance of the 1960s as an academic and journalist.

In the confused politics of the time, he was both condemned and elevated by the country's leader, then-prince Norodom Sihanouk. As editor of a leftist newspaper, Khieu Samphan was beaten in the streets of the capital Phnom Penh and imprisoned in 1960 after Sihanouk branded him an "oppositionist". But he was later elected to parliament and served as Sihanouk's commerce minister in 1962-63.

He fled to the jungle in 1967 after again becoming a target for his left-leaning politics, joining up with Pol Pot.

The Khmer Rouge seized the country in 1975 and during the regime years Khieu Samphan was appointed head of state as well as to more powerful positions within the party.

It was in these roles that genocide researchers say he would have surely been aware of what was happening as one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century unfolded.


Mass murder and its aftermath: a timeline of Cambodia since 1975

April 17, 1975: The Khmer Rouge enter the capital, Phnom Penh, beginning a reign of terror under leader Pol Pot that leaves up to two million people dead through starvation, execution and overwork.

January 7, 1979: Phnom Penh falls to the Vietnamese, who install a new regime. Civil war begins, pitting the Khmer Rouge, nationalists and royalists against each other.

January 14, 1985: Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected, is appointed as prime minister of Cambodia's Vietnam-installed government.

September 27, 1989: Vietnam says it has withdrawn from Cambodia.

October 23, 1991: A peace treaty is signed to end the conflict. Cambodia is placed under UN supervision until elections are held. UN peacekeepers begin operations almost five months later.

May 23, 1993: After decades of unrest, the first elections are held, sponsored by the UN.

September 24, 1993: Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royalist Funcinpec party becomes first prime minister, and Hun Sen, of the Cambodian People's Party, is named second prime minister.

July 5-6, 1997: Hun Sen ousts Ranariddh from power after violent clashes between the two factions.

April 15, 1998: Pol Pot dies while under house arrest by Khmer Rouge rebels who had turned against him.

March 6, 1999: Ta Mok, the last of the main Khmer Rouge rebels, is arrested.

May 10, 1999: Cambodian authorities arrest Kang Khek Iev, better known as Duch, for his role as head of the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture centre.

June 6, 2003: After tough negotiations, the UN and Cambodia agree to an international tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders.

September 19, 2007: "Brother No 2" Nuon Chea is arrested.

November 12, 2007: Former Khmer Rouge social affairs minister Ieng Thirith is arrested along with husband Ieng Sary.

November 19, 2007: Khieu Samphan is arrested.

July 26, 2010: Duch sentenced to 30 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is later upgraded to life in prison.

November 17, 2011: Judges halt proceedings against Ieng Thirith, saying she is unfit for trial because she has been diagnosed with dementia. She is later freed.

March 14, 2013: Ieng Sary dies in hospital at the age of 87 while still on trial for genocide.

August 7, 2014: Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan sentenced to life in prison.

Agence France-Presse