Pol Pot, the notorious Khmer Rouge leader who presided over the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians, was near tears as his former followers denounced him at a show trial in their jungle base camp, an American journalist said Monday.
The sighting of the elusive Pol Pot was reported by Nate Thayer, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine of Hong Kong. No Western journalist is known to have seen the enigmatic leader in 18 years.
Pol Pot, whose radical vision of an egalitarian Cambodia evolved into a genocidal reign of terror from 1975 to 1979, is now white-haired and ill and could not walk without help, Thayer said.
Thayer and a cameraman said they saw nearly 500 people gathered Friday in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia near the Thai border. The crowd was chanting, "Crush, crush, crush Pol Pot and his clique."
Wearing a loose gray shirt, baggy black pants and a checked scarf, Pol Pot sat silently on a makeshift stage as a series of former comrades condemned him, then sentenced him to life imprisonment, Thayer said.
"You could see the anguish on his face as he was denounced by his former loyalists," Thayer said.
Pol Pot has reportedly been held prisoner by his former comrades since mid-June, after he apparently tried to stop some of them from abandoning his guerrilla movement and joining with Cambodia's co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who has since been ousted. Pol Pot reportedly ordered the killing of his defense chief, Son Sen, and his family June 9 but failed to keep control even after the slayings were carried out.
"We are against Khmer killing Khmer and killing the leaders in our ranks," said guerrilla spokesman Gen. Khan Nun in an underground radio broadcast during the trial Friday. "From that day on, the Pol Pot regime was over."
Though reports of Pol Pot's capture had filtered out of the jungle since mid-June, the stories could not be independently verified and were dismissed by some experts as an elaborate hoax, a last-ditch bid to renew the Khmer Rouge movement.
Pol Pot has a history of deception and manipulation during his 35-year leadership of the Khmer Rouge movement. One of his last interviews, in 1978, ended with the unexplained killing of a leftist Scottish scholar who had accompanied two U.S. journalists to meet him.
In 1979, after being driven out of power in Cambodia by Vietnamese forces, he met with foreign reporters, announced his retirement and dropped out of sight. Shrouded by the shadows of Cambodia's jungles, he has masterminded the Khmer Rouge's guerrilla warfare, peppered the country's roads and rice fields with land mines and been protected by myth and fear.
Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, who justified the military overthrow of his co-premier earlier this month by pointing to Ranariddh's impending alliance with the much-hated Khmer Rouge, insisted that the trial was a fake.
"It is a political game by the Khmer Rouge," Hun Sen told reporters in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, on Friday. "Pol Pot is in Anlong Veng and is leading the forces."
State Department spokesman James Foley said the Clinton administration could not confirm Thayer's report. "We have no independent confirmation about [Pol Pot's] status or whereabouts."
"But we do not condone trials in absentia or legal proceedings inconsistent with accepted United Nations and international legal norms, as this jungle trial appears to be," he said.
Members of Orange County's Cambodian community have been following developments in the case ever since Pol Pot was captured.
"There can't be justice for him now, because he is so old," said Le Poe, a Cambodian immigrant who lives in Santa Ana. "There is nothing [the government] can do to make up for his [actions]."
Poe said she was happy that former followers were denouncing Pol Pot, but she feared he would be made a scapegoat and that his underlings might go unpunished.
At Cambodian Family Inc., a social services agency for immigrants based in Santa Ana, workers said they planned to watch coverage of the show trial Monday evening.
Thayer, who has been tracking the elusive leader for 14 years, said that while the trial was clearly stage-managed, he believes that Pol Pot's downfall was genuine. "The reality is that Pol Pot is finished," Thayer told The Times. "The Khmer Rouge as we have known them don't exist anymore."
Thayer believes he was allowed to witness the trial to give the new leaders credibility as they try to distance themselves from their bloody past under Pol Pot.
"The Khmer Rouge are not stupid--their level of intelligence and competence is greater than any of their political opponents'," Thayer said. "But they know they are not credible by themselves. In order for anything they say to be believed, it must be first analyzed by outsiders."
Thayer, 37, has lived in Southeast Asia intermittently since 1981 and speaks Khmer, the Cambodian language. He has made repeated forays into Khmer Rouge areas while based in Phnom Penh. This time, he came to Thailand directly from the base camp, toting videotape and photographs of the man he says is the mystifying leader.
"They are willing to accept criticism, including being criticized as perpetrators of mass murder," Thayer said of Pol Pot's captors. "But they want what they are doing to be given serious analysis and consideration."
Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts indicate support for the ousted prince and call Hun Sen a puppet and an enemy. Thayer reports that the group says it has given up old Maoist doctrine and now favors "liberal democracy."
Times staff writer Shelby Grad contributed to this story.