Thet Sambath, a journalist who spent long hours over many years with Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea and ultimately co-produced the award-winning documentary “Enemies of the People” as a result—says he wants to testify at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
The tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber is set to decide on whether he can testify, at the behest of Nuon Chea’s defense team, to bolster its appeal against a guilty verdict in the first of two trial phases.
In a phone interview with VOA Khmer from Massachusetts, Thet Sambath said his research was always meant to uncover complicated truths about the Khmer Rouge and its secretive leaders, and he hopes to have a chance to explain his findings to the court—without restrictions.
“If the court agrees, and if the court openly gives me freedom, I’ll do it,” he said. “If it restricts my right to speak to only the assigned issue, I can’t do it.”
The court has not allowed free testimony from some witnesses so far, he said.
Thet Sambath spent 10 years traveling to former Khmer Rouge strongholds, talking to cadre and leaders, in particular the reclusive Nuon Chea, who was later arrested and indicted by the tribunal. He says the charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for killings at Tuol Por Chrey, Pursat province, which were part of their initial trial, are not accurate.
“I have enough evidence, and I consider the trial of the case wrong,” he said. “I do not support Nuon Chea or Khieu Samphan or Pol Pot,” he added. But he said the court’s “internal problems” and the fact that Khmer Rouge crimes were “a sensitive issue for the current government” put the truth at risk.
The court has not investigated deeply enough and has not asked hard questions of perpetrators or their leaders, some of whom remain in the government, he said. That relegates this to a “revenge trial,” he said.
A tribunal spokesman said the Supreme Court will determine whether Thet Sambath will testify or not, based on the law. Meanwhile, the Trial Chamber is set to begin hearings again Jan. 8 on the second and final phase of trial for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Noun Chea’s defense team hopes such testimony will turn over his life sentence, handed down from the first phase of the trial.
“We are waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court Chamber on our request to summon Thet Sambath in the appeals hearing,” said Victor Koppe, an international member of the defense. Of particular importance are Thet Sambath’s statements that Nuon Chea was not involved with killings at Tuol Por Chrey, he said.
But Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and long-time Cambodia researcher, says Noun Chea acted as the captain of ship that was the Khmer Rouge.
“And he says, OK, you know these pirates over here, they did these things I didn’t know about,” Maguire said. “It doesn’t matter. Ultimate responsibility goes to the leader.”
Legal principles set in place since the Nuremberg trials put responsibility on leaders, not just those directly committed atrocity crimes, he said. “Instead of just trying the guy who had blood on his hands, who actually did the killing, you go up the chain of command and you hold the leader who formulated the policy criminally responsible.”