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Khmer Rouge genocide trial opens in Cambodia

Three high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders accused of masterminding Cambodia's "killing fields" went on trial Monday, more than three decades after the 1975-1979 communist movement's reign of terror in which an estimated 1.7 million people died.


AFP - Three top Khmer Rouge leaders went on trial for genocide at a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia Monday accused of "brutality that defies belief" during a reign of terror that left up to two million dead.

More than three decades after the "Killing Fields" era, hundreds of Cambodians packed into a Phnom Penh courtroom to hear the opening statements, seen as a key moment in the still-traumatised nation's quest for justice.

Defendants "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, ex-head of state Khieu Samphan and former foreign minister Ieng Sary have denied charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The regime's most senior surviving members appeared to listen intently to the accusations made against them relating to the communist movement's 1975-1979 rule.

"The Communist Party of Kampuchea turned Cambodia into a massive slave camp, reducing an entire nation into prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief to the present day," said Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang in her opening address.

Regime survivors, monks, students and former cadres were among those who filled the public gallery, while parts of the long-awaited proceedings were broadcast live on television.

"It's a major milestone that finally this trial has started," said court spokesman Lars Olsen. "Many people never thought it would happen."

Nearly 4,000 victims are taking part in the legal process.

"I feel very happy. I came here because I want to know the story and how it could have happened," said 75-year-old farmer Sao Kuon, who lost 11 relatives under the Khmer Rouge.

Missing from the session was the fourth accused Ieng Thirith -- the regime's "First Lady" and the only female leader to be charged by the court -- after she was ruled unfit for trial last week because she has dementia.

Judges have ordered her release, but she remains locked up while an appeal by the prosecution is considered, which is expected to take two weeks.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, abolished money and religion and wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.

Owing to fears that not all of the accused, who are in their 80s and suffer from varying ailments, will live to see a verdict, the court recently split their complex case into a series of smaller trials.

But during the opening statements the prosecution and the defence may address all of the accusations.

Prosecutor Chea Leang told of the "ruthlessness" of forced evacuations, the "unbearable conditions" in labour camps, and of victims of forced marriages being told to have sex with their assigned partner at risk of being killed.

"These crimes ordered and orchestrated by the accused were among the worst horrors inflicted on any nation in modern history," she said.

As Monday's statements drew to a close, the international co-prosecutor urged the audience not to feel compassion for Pol Pot's henchmen because of their old age.

"Let us not for one moment forget the catastrophic legacy that these three elders represent," said Andrew Cayley.

The trio's policies had "unleashed an ocean of blood", he said. "They even banned love between human beings."

Of the accused, only Khieu Samphan has indicated he will cooperate with the trial. Ieng Sary said last month he did not intend to testify.

Nuon Chea, who wore his trademark sunglasses on Monday, is expected to give opening remarks this week although he walked out of a June hearing saying he was "not happy".

Their case is the tribunal's second and most important after it sentenced former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch to 30 years in jail last year for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people. A ruling on his appeal is expected on February 3.

The second case comes as the court, which has cost nearly $150 million since it was set up in 2006, is mired in controversy over its handling of two possible new cases that are strongly opposed by the government.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday the tribunal "continues to face challenges" and that allegations of political interference "mar the credibility of any court in the eyes of the public".

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