PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Former leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge being tried by a U.N.-backed genocide tribunal apologized Thursday to families of victims of the regime's atrocities, bringing a rare emotional note to a trial dominated by the detailed recounting of names and dates.
Khieu Samphan, the head of state of the 1970s communist regime, and Nuon Chea, the group's main ideologist, were responding to questions posed by the so-called civil parties, who are representing the victims' families at the trial.
The radical policies of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, are generally blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions.
Both men have issued expressions of regret before for the killings, but they have denied legal responsibility and insisted they served with the best interests of their country and its people in mind.
They have also not hesitated to cast blame on their former colleagues and other parties.
The two men are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture, though their current trial focuses on the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, the capital, when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
Their statements Thursday were notable chiefly for the context — they were responding directly to the family members who had testified in emotional detail to the manner in which they lost their loved ones to Khmer Rouge brutality.
Because prosecutors must try to prove the defendants bore responsibility for the actions, much of the testimony has sought to draw a legalistic line showing their knowledge through a chain of command. Thursday's testimony touched on the moral implications of one of the most shocking historical episodes of the 20th century.
"I feel extremely sorry for the disappearance and extremely brutal killing of your father," Khieu Samphan told Yim Roum Doul, claiming, however, that he did not know at the time about "the atrocities committed by the military commanders and leaders."
"I did not know the great suffering of our people," he said, adding that the perpetrators "must be brought to justice."
He said he joined the Khmer Rouge not to kill fellow Cambodians but with the "determination to protect our country and to develop our country."
"But unfortunately it turned out to be a complete disaster," he said, describing those responsible as "the most stupid persons on earth."
In testimony earlier this week, Khieu Samphan did not neglect to point the finger at other parties whom he believed contributed to the Cambodian holocaust.
He spoke to one civil party about the American B-52 bombing during Cambodia's 1970-75 civil war, and the resultant death and destruction. Some scholars suggest that the bombing polarized and radicalized Cambodian society, contributing to the hash policies implemented when the Khmer Rouge took power.
He also reminded people that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen once served with the Khmer Rouge — before defecting in 1977 — and said he should be considered more responsible than him because as a junior commander he would have been more aware of what was going on.
Nuon Chea said in his testimony Thursday that he took "responsibility morally" for what occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime, explaining that "I feel remorseful for the crimes that were committed intentionally or unintentionally and whether or not I had known about it or not known about it."
Like Khieu Samphan, he offered condolences.
Nuon Chea, who testified from his cell by video because of poor health, has spoken of his regrets previously, in the 2010 documentary film "Enemies of the People."
"I have always said I made mistakes. I am regretful and I have remorse. I am sorry for our regime. I am sorry," Nuon Chea told Cambodian filmmaker Thet Sambath.
But he was also clear that the Khmer Rouge leaders had seen their primary duty as safeguarding the revolution and said suspected traitors were killed because they "were enemies of the people."