PHNOM PENH — Cambodia's landmark trial against ex-Khmer Rouge leaders is "a monumental mistake", says the French priest who 35 years ago became the first person to expose the horrors of the regime.
"I deny the United Nations the right to judge the Khmer Rouge," said 73-year-old Francois Ponchaud, who was forced to leave Phnom Penh when the hardline communists took power in 1975.
"The UN backed the Khmer Rouge for 14 years for geo-political reasons during the Cold War. I don't see why the UN would now give itself the right to judge those it supported," he said in an interview with AFP.
In what is considered an embarrassing chapter in UN history, the Khmer Rouge was allowed to retain its seat in the General Assembly even after the regime was ousted by Vietnamese troops in 1979 and its blood-stained revolution was exposed to the world.
In 2006, the Cambodian government and the UN set up a tribunal in Phnom Penh to try to find justice for up to two million people who died under the regime's 1975-1979 reign.
Late last year, it began trying former deputy leader Nuon Chea, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, all of whom deny charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The trial has been hailed as a milestone event in the still-traumatised nation, but the Roman Catholic priest is one of its few vocal detractors.
Ponchaud, who returned to his beloved Cambodia in 1993, says the legal process betrays a lack of cultural sensitivity because it imposes a Western idea of justice on a staunchly Buddhist nation.
"It's a monumental mistake. The Cambodians don't need this trial, invented by Westerners, that causes more pain than it heals. It just rehashes all this suffering that the Khmer people have begun to forget," he said.
Ponchaud, who has spent years living alongside rural Cambodians, believes the country has its own way of resolving conflicts, and "it's not through court verdicts".
Many survivors and former Khmer Rouge perpetrators have already found a way to "live together", often side by side in the same village, he said, trusting that karma will set things right in the next life.
"The concept of human rights is a very Judeo-Christian concept," according to the clergyman. "For a Buddhist, the human person doesn't exist. When you die, you will be reincarnated."
But Ponchaud is not in denial about the crimes that were committed under the hardline communist movement that enslaved the population in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
He has vivid memories of the mass evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 when more than two million inhabitants -- including the young, the elderly, pregnant women and hospital patients -- were forced to abandon their homes for labour camps in the countryside.
The priest himself was one of the last foreigners to exit Cambodia that May, after weeks holed up at the French embassy, the last refuge for expats, until the Khmer Rouge decided it was time for outsiders to leave.
Ponchaud shared his story with journalists upon his return to France, but his claims that a capital city had been emptied of its residents in just a matter of hours defied belief.
Two years later, in 1977, when the general public was still largely enchanted by the idea of the small nation's rural revolution, Ponchaud published "Cambodia: Year Zero" -- a book that detailed for the first time what was really happening inside the secretive country.
"I think that alas, yes, I was the first to alert the world," he said.
Based on the chilling accounts of dozens of Cambodians who had managed to escape, Ponchaud predicted "the assassination of a people".
"Unending labour, too little food, wretched sanitary conditions, terror and summary executions: from these the hair-raising human cost of the Khmer revolution can be imagined without much difficulty," he wrote.
"Even if the refugees' affirmations are assumed to be exaggerated, the terrible truth remains: the Khmer revolution is one of the bloodiest of the 20th century."
Three decades on, Ponchaud is as outspoken as ever -- and he's not done sharing his thoughts with the world.
The trial against the elderly accused will soon turn its focus on the Phnom Penh evacuation, which is listed as a crime against humanity on the trio's charge sheet.
"Of course it's a crime against humanity. What they did was monstrous. It's unjustifiable," Ponchaud said.
As an eye-witness of the event and the author of seminal book on the Khmer Rouge, the priest might well be called upon to testify.
If that happens, Ponchaud says he won't hesitate to tell the court his own truth.
"If I take the stand, I will say exactly what I think. I will be frank."
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