Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan sits in the dock in the courtroom at the ECCC in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP/Nhet Sok Heng/ECCC
Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan sits in the dock in the courtroom at the ECCC in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP / Nhet Sok Heng / ECCC

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan was given a life sentence on Friday, the second time he has been held to account for crimes committed between 1975 and 1979.

Khieu Samphan, who was born on July 27, 1931, in Svay Rieng province into a Chinese-Khmer family, was the chairman of the state presidium of Democratic Kampuchea from 1976 to 1979.

He served as Cambodia’s head of state under the Khmer Rouge and was one of the most powerful officials in the genocidal regime. Along with Nuon Chea, he was given a life sentence on August 7, 2014, for crimes against humanity.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once described Khieu Samphan as “one of the more reasonable members of the Khmer Rouge,” possibly because he was well-educated and multi-lingual.

He earned a seat at the prestigious Lycée Sisowath in Cambodia before going to French universities, where he studied economics at the University of Montpellier. He later earned a PhD at the University of Paris.

While in France, he joined a circle of leftist Khmer intellectuals studying in Paris in the 1950s. He was also a founder of the Khmer Students’ Association, the forerunner of the Khmer Rouge.

When French authorities closed the KSA in 1956, he founded another student organization, the Khmer Students’ Union.

Returning to Cambodia 1959, he found work in the law faculty at the University of Phnom Penh and started L’Observateur, a French-language leftist publication seen as hostile by the government.

The publication was banned the following year and police publicly humiliated him by beating, undressing and photographing him in public. 

After dabbling in Cambodian politics and becoming disillusioned, he fled to the jungles and played a key role in forming what later became commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. 

He has always maintained he was not aware of the mass killings and atrocities that took place while the Khmer Rouge ruled. At his court sentencing in June last year, he was defiant in the court, claiming accusations that the regime exterminated its own people were false Vietnamese propaganda.

On the final day of last year’s closing statements, both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were offered the chance to address the tribunal.

The then 85-year-old Khieu Samphan spoke for 30 minutes and maintained he was not a murderer. “This is an opportunity for me to answer the questions posed by civil parties in this case. I know that they really suffered. I also heard when they spoke to me, sometimes referring to me as a murderer,” he said.

“How could it be otherwise? Since this court’s inception it has done everything in order to let you, the civil parties, refer to me as someone who has the responsibility for all the sufferings.

“But the term ‘murderer’ – I categorically reject it.”

He maintained he was oblivious to the horrors the Cambodian people endured while he was head of state. “I did not know about these issues during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. I discovered much more about these topics only after the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and in these hearings,” he said.

“It is therefore impossible for me to explain the reasons for all the sufferings.” He then blamed the Vietnamese – Cambodia’s traditional enemy and the country that invaded and ended the regime he had helped to build.

“The Communist Party of Kampuchea leaders did not exterminate our people. What was the interest in doing so?” he asked. “The manipulation of Vietnam saying it was self-genocide is in fact Vietnamese propaganda.

“The wish of the Communist Party of Kampuchea at the time was not to subject the population to slavery for the sole benefit of [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot. However, that is exactly the fable told by the co-prosecutors. That is wrong,” he said.

“The leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea hoped to transform our country into a modern agricultural country that would gradually develop industries. That is for the people. People would have an abundance of food to eat and to live better and better,” he said.

“That is the truth.” The truth according to the man who helped found a regime responsible for the deaths of as many as 3 million of his own people.

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