Rutgers Professor Testifies at UN-backed Trial of Senior Leaders of the Khmer Rouge

Rutgers Professor Testifies at UN-backed Trial of Senior Leaders of the Khmer Rouge

Director of Rutgers University-Newark’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights spent four days giving expert testimony on atrocities committed by Cambodian regime

On a recent afternoon, under the glare of lights and TV cameras, Rutgers University-Newark Professor Alex Hinton sat motionless, waiting as an elderly man was wheeled into the courtroom.

Alex Hinton is working on two books related to the trial.
Photo: Courtesy of the ECCC
Hinton, an anthropologist and author of Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, had spent four consecutive days at the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), giving expert testimony at the trial of senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who from 1975 to 1979 carried out one of the worst genocides in human history, killing an estimated one-fourth of Cambodia’s population, or some 3 million people.

This was the final segment of Hinton’s testimony. Fatigued but alert,  he swiveled his chair to face the elderly man. And when he did, he looked into the eyes of 89-year-old Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, the infamous “Brother Number 2.”

“I’d interacted with Khmer Rouge members and countless witnesses during my years of field research in Cambodia,” says Hinton. “But here was one of the architects of the genocide, a legendary mass murderer.”

Hinton’s face-off with Chea was the climax of 25 years of research. He had been summoned to testify on charges of genocide, the weightiest of all indictments brought in the multi-year ECCC trial of KR leaders. As the holder of the UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention and the director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at RU-N, he had spoken to many large audiences. Yet this was a capstone in what had already been a remarkably fulfilling career.

While  being live-streamed on the web and captured by  broadcast media around the world, Hinton testified on the social and political factors that led to the targeting of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim Cham living under the KR regime at the time, drawing on a model of genocide he’d developed over the years, which the defense lawyers repeatedly tried to discredit.

Chea wasted no time in joining in, challenging Hinton’s insistence that certain terms used by the regime – including the word “Yuon” –were meant to incite violence against ethnic Vietnamese.

Nuon Chea
Nuon Chea, 89, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, is one of several senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge accused of carrying out one of the worst genocides in human history.


Photo: Courtesy of the EEEC
“There was a little gravel in his voice. He enunciated his words and was clearly an effective orator, ” says Hinton, recalling his exchange with the notorious former leader. “At age 89, he still had a commanding presence and conviction. I think he still believes in their movement and what he did.”

Hinton rebutted Chea effectively and withstood 24 hours of testimony over the four days. But being in an international court of law forced him to operate on a whole new level, he says, comparing the experience to that of a modern-day colosseum.

“It’s extraordinarily stressful. You’re there all alone with no team, the eyes of the court, country and world upon you” he says. “The prosecution, civil and especially defense teams grill you. When the red light on your mic goes on, that’s your cue. You just stay in the moment and grapple with whatever is presented to you.

Set up by Cambodia with the help of the U.N., the ECCC began its work in 2006. The following year, the top-five living senior KR leaders were arrested and detained. Pol Pot was not among them, having died in 1998.

The trial has been split up into four cases. Hinton testified in case number two, which revolves around Chea and another leader, Khieu Samphan, who were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 and are now appealing that ruling. The ECCC proceedings will last several more years in an attempt to bring truth and reconciliation –  and possibly reparations – to Cambodians.

Hinton is working on two books related to the trial. The first, Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, is due out in fall 2016. It focuses on Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), head of the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh where mass torture and interrogation were carried out. Duch was tried in case number one, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for crimes against humanity and breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

As for Chea, Hinton is glad he took the stand at his trial, recognizing his as a crucial voice that legitimizes the proceedings. And despite Chea’s homocidal abuse of power, the scholar is quick to add a caveat to the public’s perception of him, and genocidal figures in general.

“Nuon Chea is not a monster. He’s a human being, and it’s important to recognize him as such because writing him off as a sociopath leaves us with very little insight,” says Hinton. “Seeing him as a person gets us into other important dimensions of humanity. It’s important to remember this as we consider this tragedy and the crimes he and his cohorts committed.”

For media inquiries contact Lawrence Lerner at or 973-353-1944.