BANGKOK, Thailand — Two former senior figures in Cambodia's Khmer Rouge have made a rare admission of guilt for the atrocities committed during the regime's brutal rule.
Nuon Chea, the group's chief ideologist, and Khieu Samphan, its head of state, on Thursday addressed relatives of the regime's victims who testified at their trial for crimes against humanity at a United Nations-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh.
Chea, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge honcho still alive, told the court that he is "bearing the responsibility from my heart" and expressed condolences to families who suffered under his hyper-communist regime.
"I, of course, was one of the leaders. So I am not rejecting responsibility," he said. Though now withered and frail, the 86-year-old was once known as "Brother No. 2" and served as right-hand man to the infamous Khmer Rouge chief Pol Pot.
"I feel remorseful for the crimes that were committed intentionally or unintentionally and whether or not I had known about it or not known about it," he stated at another point.
Samphan, meanwhile, offered a "sincere apology" — but insisted that he was "not aware of the heinous acts committed by other leaders that caused tragedy for the nation and people."
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Though both men claimed at least partial ignorance, court observers and lawyers welcomed their comments as the closest either has yet come to an admission of guilt. "I'm sure that their lawyers are not very happy," an attorney for the victims, Elisabeth Simonneau-Fort, told the Phnom Penh Post.
The men's comments meant a lot to her clients, Simonneau-Fort said. "Many victims have waited more than 30 years to hear any statement of apology or regret from leadership figures in the Khmer Rouge," according to tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen.
The regime, which ruled from 1974 to 1979, aimed to reset Cambodia to "Year Zero": an agricultural utopia rid of meddling outsiders and elites. In doing so, roughly 2 million died from forced labor, disease and outright murder. The regime was eventually overthrown by Vietnam, which went on to occupy Cambodia for nearly a decade.
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This tone of concession was a sharp departure from Nuon Chea's previous stance at the tribunal. More typical is a 2011 statement in which he portrayed himself as heroic: "I had to leave my family behind to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wished to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the earth."
The tribunal, officially titled the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is beset with major problems: it's starved of cash and many key Khmer Rouge leaders are either dead or too senile to prosecute. Its Cambodian staff, denied pay for months, has previously gone on strike.
As David Scheffer, the UN secretary general's special expert to the tribunal, told GlobalPost last year, "it would be outrageous for that trial to collapse and for these men to walk free without judgement having been rendered."
That scenario, he said, is "frankly almost too horrific to envision."
Patrick Winn contributed to this report from Bangkok.