The people of Cambodia were sacred and “akin to gods” in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge leadership, and the country was in better shape by the end of communist rule than it was before, the defense team for Nuon Chea argued on Monday in court.
In its final day of closing statements for the regime’s second-in-command—who is on trial alongside head of state Khieu Samphan for a wide range of crimes including genocide—defense lawyers argued the indictment against them had shown either an ignorance of or “deep bias” against the core beliefs of socialism.
Students sit in the public gallery at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday, the final day of closing statements for Nuon Chea. (ECCC)Rather than seeking to enslave the population to achieve its ultra-communist vision at all costs, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) sought to construct a more equal society through cooperatives, said Doreen Chen, a senior legal consultant for Nuon Chea.
“What they wanted to do was transfer private ownership of the means of production to the collective—not to enslave the people, but to liberate and empower them,” Ms. Chen said.
In Democratic Kampuchea (DK), like in all Marxist-Leninist regimes, “the people were deemed as sacred and almighty—akin to gods,” she said.
The Khmer Rouge inherited a nation that had been destroyed by approximately 2.7 million tons of U.S.-dropped bombs—more than the tonnage dropped by the Allied forces in the entirety of World War II—and was in a better state by late 1978 when the Vietnamese began their invasion, she claimed.
“The facts are this: Cambodia was in ruins in April 1975 due to the civil war. Despite the CPK efforts to rebuild the country and improve people’s lives, temporary hardship was a sad but inevitable situation,” Ms. Chen said.
“Moreover, although the people’s standard of living was still not ideal by the end of the short regime, it had undoubtedly improved,” she said.
Historians estimate that between 1.7 and 2 million people perished during the Pol Pot regime because of overwork, starvation, illness and execution.
In the morning session, Victor Koppe, Nuon Chea’s international defense lawyer, refuted charges that his client was guilty of genocide against the country’s Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese.
The U.N. Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
“There was no genocide, no extermination and no religious persecution against the Cham people,” Mr. Koppe said. “The CPK did not attempt to destroy the Cham as an ethnic group or discriminate against them on the basis of their religion. Rather, the evidence shows that Cham were treated just like every other DK citizen.”
Allegations by the prosecution that efforts to wipe out Cham culture by shuttering mosques, forcing Cham people to eat pork and cutting women’s hair were the regime’s efforts to promote equality, he said.
“These measures had nothing to do with religion. Instead, they either related to the CPK ideology, such as equality, revolution and also gender equality, or had to do with practical necessities,” he said, adding there was no evidence that these were official policies.
Mr. Koppe also argued that there was no evidence of Nuon Chea urging the destruction of Vietnamese citizens, and that any references to “enemies” from the state’s neighbor were meant in military terms.
On the contrary, the lawyer said, there was evidence in CPK documents highlighting the “wonderful friendship” between the two nations.
“Mr. President, I’m asking you, would you imagine Adolf Hitler using such terms when referring to Jews or Radio des Mille Collines, the Rwandan Hutu government’s official radio, talk about ‘a wonderful friendship with the Tutsis’ in 1994?” he asked.
“The answer is obviously no.”

The defense for Khieu Samphan will begin its closing statement today.
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