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Top ex-Khmer Rouge leaders face trial in Phnom Penh

Four former senior Khmer Rouge leaders, including "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea (pictured), appeared at a UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh on Monday to face war crimes charges for atrocities committed during the 1975-1979 reign of terror.

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Three elderly men and one woman, all once senior members of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, faced a court in Phnom Penh Monday at the start of a UN-backed war crimes trial more than three decades after the brutal “Killings Fields” revolution that caused the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s population. 

The four defendants include Nuon Chea, 84, the group’s chief ideologue once known as “Brother No. 2", who was second only to the regime's leader, Pol Pot.

The other three accused are Khieu Samphan, the 79-year-old former head of state; former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 85; and his 79-year-old wife, Ieng Thirith, Pol Pot’s sister-in-law, who served as minister for social affairs.

Frail and infirm, the four displayed no emotions as the opening statements were read out before a packed court as Cambodians across the country watched the much-awaited trail live on national television.

The four former Khmer Rouge leaders face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture for acts committed between 1975 and 1979 as the Communist regime tried to institute its vision of an agrarian utopia, turning the country into a giant labour camp where torture, execution, starvation and exhaustion killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.

Reporting from Phnom Penh, FRANCE 24’s Nelson Rand said Monday’s trial opening was a milestone in Cambodia’s history.

“There is a sense in Cambodia that this trial is very important to help bring about national reconciliation, there is a sense that finally justice will be served,” said Rand. “Just the fact that this trial is taking place, even though it’s 32 years since the end of the regime, that in itself is better than not having a trial at all.”

Allegations of corruption, government interference

Bringing the perpetrators of one of the 21st century’s most brutal atrocities to justice has been a particularly fraught and controversial process.

The latest trial, known as Case 002, is only the second under the auspices of the multimillion-dollar Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a UN-backed tribunal created in 2005.

In July 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, who presided over the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Tuol Sleng, or S21, prison and interrogation centre, was jailed for 35 years. 

Pol Pot, the French-educated Khmer Rouge leader, died in 1998 without facing trial.

“There’s been widespread criticism of the process; it’s been dogged by controversy,” Rand said. “There have been allegations of corruption, interference by the Cambodian government and infighting among court officials.”

Political pressures are also raising doubts over whether there will ever be a Case 003.

The current government has repeatedly opposed efforts to widen the tribunal's inquiries and says there should be no more trials after that of the four leaders now before the court.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rogue cadre, last year told UN chief Ban Ki-moon that further indictments were "not allowed".

Amid allegations of government interference in the hybrid court, which conforms to both international and Cambodian law, a number of court officials resigned following the tribunal's June 7 decision to reject Case 003 from consideration.

Aging defendants, trial at a snail’s pace

The court’s snail’s pace has been the primary criticism, amid widespread fears that the aging defendants are likely to die without facing justice and without addressing the many questions surrounding one of the world’s most secretive and barbaric regimes.

Shortly after the opening statements were read on Monday, Nuon Chea, dressed in a striped ski cap, sweatshirt and sunglasses, told the court that he was cold and unwell and left the courtroom.

"I'm ready to come back when the court discusses my requests," he said.

All four defendants are expected to enter not guilty pleas.

Despite the widespread criticisms of the tribunal, the opening of Case 002 marked an important step for the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge, some of whom patiently lined up outside the courthouse early on Monday to witness the proceedings.

Standing in line outside the courthouse, Sem Hoen, who lost four family members during the Khmer Rouge revolution, told Reuters that she wanted an acknowledgment from the perpetrators of such unspeakable crimes, and an explanation for the indiscriminate mass killings.

"I want them to confess. People won't stay calm if they don't say what happened," she said. "Justice is very important."

 

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