PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea denied charges of genocide and other crimes Thursday on the last day of his trial but expressed "deepest remorse" for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians during the regime's rule in the 1970s.
The ailing 87-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, also apologized to Cambodians and accepted "moral responsibility" for the deaths, repeating previous statements he has made in an attempt to distance himself from the actual crimes.
Along with Nuon Chea, the U.N.-backed tribunal has also charged 82-year-old Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, with genocide and crimes against humanity, including torture, enslavement and murder, for their roles in the radical communist regime nearly 40 years ago.
Khieu Samphan is also expected to deny all the charges later Thursday. A verdict is expected in the first half of 2014, more than two years after the trial began.
Nuon Chea said the Khmer Rouge was only defending itself from external and internal enemies.
Blaming "those traitors" for the tragic situation in Cambodia in the 1970s, Nuon Chea said he would nonetheless "like to sincerely apologize to the public, the victims, the families, and all Cambodian people."
"I still stand by my previously stated position that I am morally responsible for the loose and untidy control" by his party. "I wish to show my remorse and pray for the lost souls that occurred by any means" during the Khmer Rouge rule.
His words are unlikely to be any consolation for the survivors, hundreds of whom crowded the courtroom and the tribunal's grounds to hear the two aged defendants speak.
Deaths due to execution, disease, torture and starvation were widespread during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule in the 1970s, when the communist ideologues emptied cities and forced virtually the entire population to work on farm collectives.
In his defense, Nuon Chea said he had never ordered Khmer Rouge cadres to commit any crimes.
"I never educated or instructed them to mistreat or kill people to deprive them of food or commit any genocide," said the frail former leader, speaking steadily as he read from pages of notes.
"Through this trial, it is clearly indicated that I was not engaged in any commission of the crimes as alleged by the co-prosecutors," he said. "In short, I am innocent in relation to those allegations."
"I respectfully submit to your honors to acquit me from all the charges and to subsequently release me," he said.
Death and disability have robbed the tribunal of other defendants. Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the regime's social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial in September 2012 after being diagnosed with dementia. The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
The tribunal, launched in 2006, so far has convicted only one defendant, Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
The present trial's focus is on the forced movement of people and excludes some of the gravest charges related to genocide, detention centers and killings. The next trial will begin as soon as possible, but the tribunal has not set a date.