Almost 30 years after the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the group's second-in-command made his first appearance in court Monday. Noun Chea is charged with crimes against humanity and other serious offenses. But, after a brief hearing, the court was adjourned to a later date over a dispute concerning the legal status of one of his defense lawyers. Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.
Appearing old and frail but still defiant, Noun Chea, made his first appearance in court almost 30 years after the brutal Khmer Rouge were swept from power by invading Vietnamese troops and their Cambodian allies.
At 81 years old, Noun Chea has spent most of the past three decades living freely in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, near the Thai border. He was arrested more than four months ago and is being held at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal's purpose-built facility outside Phnom Penh.
Known as Brother Number Two, Noun Chea is believed to have been the chief ideologue of the secretive Khmer Rouge and right-hand man to leader Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
In 1997, Noun Chea was granted amnesty from prosecution by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in return for defecting to the government with thousands of Khmer Rouge troops, leading many to fear he would escape justice. Helen Jarvis is the spokeswoman for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
"This is, of course, a very important day that Noun Chea, who was known as [Brother] Number Two, is appearing in court for the very first time. So for many people this is an important moment that they thought perhaps would never happen," Jarvis said.
For many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, the appearance of such a high-ranking KR leader in court is deeply significant. Many hope they will finally see justice done to those deemed 'most responsible' for the deaths of almost two million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979.
Like many Cambodians, Huy Chhum, 75, from Takeo province close to the Vietnam border, lost scores of family members in those years, including his wife, brother and son.
"Today, I'm feeling better that the man who is responsible for the killing of my family is appearing in court," Huy said. "My anger has come down from 100 percent to about 70 percent because there are lawyers and prosecutors here who can punish this man for the terrible mistakes he made in the past."
Noun Chea's appearance in court was quickly adjourned at the request of his defense council because one of his chosen foreign defense lawyers was prevented from attending the hearing because he has not been registered with the Cambodian Bar Association. The attorney's application to join the CBA was held up after he submitted a brief last Tuesday seeking the disqualification of one of the tribunal's Cambodian judges. Peter Foster is the official spokesman for the United Nations side of the joint Cambodian-U.N. tribunal.
"I think this act of defense is a good sign for the court. It shows that international standards are being met and that Brother Number Two is being fully represented under the law," Foster said.
No date has been set for Noun Chea to reappear in court and he will continue to detained pending his appeal for release ahead of his trial, expected to begin this year. Noun Chea is the second former Khmer Rouge leader to appear in court so far and cases against at least five other prominent leaders are being prepared.