NEW DELHI — Three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of
helping mastermind Cambodia’s “killing fields” in the 1970s went on
trial in Phnom Penh on Monday as hundreds of victims and curious
onlookers arrived at the court from around the country to witness the
The U.N.-backed trial is expected to
take months. Furthermore, there’s often been a significant delay in past
tribunals between the end of testimony and the verdict.
reflects in part the highly political nature of these proceedings in a
nation where feelings about that brutal period of Cambodian history are
still raw and many of those who served in the Khmer Rouge remain
prominent in society.
Adding to the pressure is
the advanced age of many of the victims and accused, amid fears that
those who committed atrocities will die before they face justice.
three defendants — Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist
and second in command, Khieu Samphan, 80, an ex-head of state and Ieng
Sary, 86, the former foreign minister — sat in a row beside their
lawyers Monday in a courtroom especially built for the tribunal.
The charges they face include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture.
court ruled last week that a fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, 79, would
not face trial because she has Alzheimer’s disease, although the
prosecution is appealing that ruling. She is the wife of Ieng Sary and a
former minister for social affairs.
the start of this trial and think it’s good for Cambodia,” said Rupert
Abbott, a researcher with human rights watchdog group Amnesty
International. “It’s important, not just to bring justice to victims of
the Khmer Rouge and that the court follows international standards. It’s
also important to create a legacy, an example, for Cambodia justice and
show what a fair trial looks like.”
Rouge leader and ideological inspiration, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the
jungle while being held prisoner by his own comrades.
the 1975-79 reign of the brutal regime, featured in the 1984 film “The
Killing Fields,” an estimated 1.7 million people starved to death, were
executed or perished from exhaustion or lack of medical attention as a
result of radical policies aimed at creating a completely agrarian
In the prosecution’s opening
statement, according to The Associated Press, Cambodian co-prosecutor
Chea Leang outlined the Khmer Rouge’s brutality as it’s troops captured
Phnom Penh, the capital, in April 1975 after a five-year civil war and
started forcing the estimated 1 million city dwellers into rural areas.
Leang also pledged to show that the Khmer Rouge regime, which was
overseen by the three defendants, was “was one of the most brutal and
horrific in modern history.” She and other prosecutors are expected to
seek life in prison, the maximum penalty, for the defendants.
is the second of four cases by the tribunal, established in 2006. In
the first case, Kang Kek Ieu, known as Kaing Guek Eav in tribunal
filings, former head of the regime’s notorious S-21 prison, was
convicted in July and sentencing to 35 years in prison.
charges against the prison warden, a much lower-level official than the
three currently on trial, included war crimes, crimes against humanity
and related offenses. The sentence was subsequently reduced to 19 years
due in part to credit given for the time he had served.
tribunal has been hit with charges of political interference as critics
say it has succumbed to pressure from the Cambodian government to stop
looking too closely at regime history.
in the current trial has divided the case into several mini-trials
reflecting the advanced age of the defendants, rather than considering
the entire complex charges in a single proceeding.
one reason is the concern that the whole trial could take a long time,”
said Abbott. “So they’re looking at one alleged crime at a time.”
Monday, hundreds of people — including regime survivors, former regime
cadres, monks in robes and students in school uniforms — packed the
court’s public gallery for the beginning of four days of opening
statements in the closely watched case.
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