Khmer Rouge ex-leader denies key role in atrocity

By SOPHENG CHEANG | November 23, 2011 | 4:35 AM EST

In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan reads documetns during the third day of a trial of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. The tribunal is seeking justice on behalf of the 1.7 million people, as much as a quarter of Cambodia's then-population , estimated to have died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork when the Khmer Rouge held power in 1975-79.(AP Photo/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Mark Peters) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A senior Khmer Rouge leader accused a war crimes tribunal Wednesday of wanting his "head on the block," and insisted he had no real authority during the regime's brutal rule of Cambodia in the 1970s.

Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, said he was a figurehead leader who never joined key policy meetings in the radical communist government, which is accused of orchestrating the country's "killing fields" and causing the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.

In his rebuttal of prosecutors' opening remarks, Khieu Samphan accused the U.N.-backed tribunal of exaggerating the Khmer Rouge's wrongdoing with "fairy tales."

However, he also sought to justify the regime's rule in a historical context — as the highest surviving leader Nuon Chea did during comments to the panel on Tuesday — saying the movement sought to protect the country from French colonialists, the U.S. and neighboring enemy Vietnam.

"Today you may see it as a joke. However, I shall remind you that at that time, communism was the one movement that gave hope to millions of youth around the world. What I really wanted at that time, was the best possible experience for my country, for Cambodia," Khieu Samphan said.

The tribunal is seeking justice on behalf of an estimated quarter of Cambodia's population to have died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork when the Khmer Rouge held power in 1975-79.

The defendants — Khieu Samphan, 80; Nuon Chea, 85, the group's No. 2 and chief ideologist; and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 86 — are the most senior surviving members of the regime. They are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture, but have long denied wrongdoing.

The Khmer Rouge's supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in Cambodia's jungles while a prisoner of his own comrades.

Prosecutors on Monday and Tuesday described a litany of horrors imposed by the Khmer Rouge as it tried to build an agrarian utopia.

Khieu Samphan said Wednesday that the prosecutors accounts were based mainly on unreliable old news reports and books, calling them "fairy tales," and said his position as head of state had no real power.

"You really want my head on the block," Khieu Samphan said Wednesday.

Khieu Samphan also reminded the court that U.S. bombing of his country during the Vietnam War contributed to its misery.

"Can you imagine what my country faced after such bloody killing and war?" he declared.

While decrying the case against him, he added that he welcomed the opportunity to explain his role to the Cambodian public.

"I clearly know that I contributed to national reconciliation in order to defend my country, for it to be to be a sovereign, independent nation."

Co-defendant Nuon Chea, who spoke Tuesday, stressed his role in protecting Cambodia's sovereignty. It was a touchstone of Khmer Rouge beliefs that neighboring Vietnam sought to annex the country and was behind most of its troubles.

The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses. His sentence was reduced to 19 years due to time served and other technicalities.