PHNOM PENH, Feb 18 ― One of the Khmer Rouge's top surviving leaders yesterday challenged his life sentence for crimes against humanity and said he had only fought for “social justice” in Cambodia, in rare comments made to a UN-backed court.

The brutal regime's former head of state Khieu Samphan, 84, raised his voice to a chamber in Phnom Penh that will decide whether to accept an appeal on the guilty verdict handed down to him and another senior leader, 89-year-old Nuon Chea.

The men were convicted of committing crimes against humanity in 2014 for their pivotal role in the communist government that oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians from 1975-1979 ― nearly one-quarter of the population.

“What I want to say today and what I want my countrymen to hear is that as an intellectual I have never wanted anything other than social justice for my country,” Khieu Samphan told the court's seven judges on the final day of the appeal hearing.

“I shall shout loudly that I never wanted to agree to any policy that is against the Cambodian people,” he said.

Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two” to chief leader Pol Pot, did not exercise his right to make a statement. 

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were the first high-ranking leaders to be jailed from the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruthlessly dismantled Cambodia's modern society in pursuit of an agrarian Marxist utopia.

But their lawyers quickly appealed the ruling, accusing the court of a string of errors and the judges of failing to remain impartial due to their personal experiences under the regime.

The pair are also currently facing a second trial on charges of genocide for the killings of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, as well as for their regime's use of forced marriage and rape.

An estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Cham Muslims and 20,000 Vietnamese were killed during the Khmer Rouge's brief but brutal reign.

The court, located on the outskirts of the capital, was set up in following an agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders “most responsible” for the regime's crimes

The case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 for reasons including their advanced age and the large number of accusations.

Many key Khmer Rouge leaders have died without facing justice, including “Brother Number One” Pol Pot who died in 1998. ― AFP