Four former top Khmer Rouge leaders went on trial at Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court on Monday, over 30 years after the regime's bloody 1975-1979 rule saw some 1.7 million people killed through torture, execution or starvation.
REUTERS - The United Nations-backed trial of the four most senior surviving members of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime began on Monday, three decades after its "year zero" revolution marked one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
The defendants, all now elderly and infirm, were among the inner circle of the late Pol Pot, the French-educated architect of the Khmer Rouge's ultra-Maoist "Killing Fields" revolution.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians -- a quarter of the population -- were killed through torture, execution, starvation and exhaustion from 1975-1979.
The quartet, "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former President Khieu Samphan, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, a former Social Affairs Minister, are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, among other charges.
All are expected to enter not guilty pleas. "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Except for Khieu Samphan, none have shown willingness to cooperate with the court and there are concerns that Cambodians will be denied the chance to hear first-hand accounts of the motivation and ideology that fuelled an unrelenting killing spree by one of the world's most enigmatic regimes.
The closest any of the former cadres have come to disclosure is seen in an award-winning documentary film yet to be released in Cambodia entitled "Enemies of the People", in which Nuon Chea, during six years of recorded interviews with a journalist, admitted those seen as threats to the party line were "corrected" at the behest of the regime.
The filmmakers have said they would not hand over tapes if asked by the court, but judges say material from the film can be used by prosecutors once in the public domain.
The case is a crucial test of whether the multi-million dollar Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid international-led tribunal created in 2005, can deliver justice.
Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the start of the second case was a "cathartic moment" that he hoped would help bring some closure.
The crimes "remain ingrained in Cambodia's collective psyche. I hope that this trial ... provides all victims with some sense of justice, however delayed that justice may be", Ou Virak said in a statement.
But justice might continue to elude Cambodia. Cases have moved at a snail's pace in the ECCC its processes are extremely bureaucratic. The defendants are old and in poor health and some might die before a verdict is delivered by the ECCC, which estimates its spending will reach $150 million by year-end.
The court has so far handed down just one sentence, a 35-year jail term, commuted to 19 years, for Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, over his role in the deaths of more than 14,000 people at the notorious S-21 torture centre in Phnom Penh. Duch has appealed against the ruling.
His sentence was seen by many Cambodians as too lenient and a so far unexplained decision earlier this month by co-investigating judges not to pursue a third case, believed to involve two senior Khmer Rouge military commanders, has prompted resignations by court staff and outrage from rights groups complaining of political interference by Cambodia's government and inaction by the United Nations.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rogue cadre, has made no secret of his disdain for the court and last year told U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon that further indictments were "not allowed".
This week's opening proceedings are expected to be dominated by moves from Ieng Sary's lawyers to have charges against him dropped on the grounds that he was sentenced to death by a court created by Vietnamese invaders in 1979 and pardoned by Cambodia's then King Norodom Sihanouk 17 years later.
The pardon for Ieng Sary, a reclusive guerilla leader, came as part of a peace deal between warring factions in Cambodia, but prosecutors are expected to argue the pardon was for the death sentence, not the charges he currently faces.