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November 20, 2011

Trial of Khmer Rouge Leaders Starts in Phnom Penh

by Robert Carmichael

On Monday the long-awaited trial of three surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge opened in Phnom Penh. This week the tribunal hears opening arguments by the prosecution and by the defense. The three accused are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The hearings opened Monday with judges reading out the names of the three accused senior Khmer Rouge leaders and the charges they face.

The list of alleged crimes is long and includes murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution and willful killing, among others.

For the nearly 4,000 civil parties - or victims recognized by the United Nations-backed tribunal - this day has been a long time coming.

Some of them were present Monday at the court, including Cambodian-American Neou Sarem, a former journalist with VOA’s Khmer Service, who returned to Cambodia in recent days to be present at the start of the trial.

She was in court today to see the leaders on trial, and says she feels some pity for the elderly defendants. "Because they used to be big shots in the Khmer Rouge time, and they were like a god who ordered you can die, you can survive by their order, and now it’s their turn to be in the court,” she said.

A week ago the court was set to try four defendants - the last surviving leaders of Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge movement.

But last Thursday the tribunal ruled that Ieng Thirith, the former social affairs minister, was suffering from dementia and was unfit for trial.

Her husband, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, is one of the three remaining defendants, along with Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two and regarded as the movement’s chief ideologue, and former head of state Khieu Samphan.

The three deny charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for their alleged roles in devising the policies that led to the deaths of around two million people between 1975 and 1979.

Neou Sarem says seeing them on trial shows that those who commit such crimes will not escape prosecution. But being here has proved challenging.

“And then I feel like I live again in the Khmer Rouge regime - and I feel the suffering of other people. I feel the suffering of my Mum, you know, who get killed by the Khmer Rouge who get the horse and dragged her because she stole food for my daughters," Sarem said. "So it seems like bad memories come back again and again.”

Last July, the U.N.-backed tribunal convicted prison warden Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes and other offenses and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. The current trial of the accused top leaders is seen as more complicated, partly because the defendants, unlike Kaing Guek Eav, maintain their innocence.

International co-prosecutor Andre Cayley spoke last week ahead of the start of Case 002 about why the case is so significant. 

“The first thing is that we are dealing with nearly two million dead, so there isn’t anybody in this country that has been unaffected by what happened during the Khmer Rouge period," said Cayley. "So I think there are a great many Cambodians that are interested in the outcome."

Given the complexity of the case, the age of the defendants - who are all in their 80s - and their health, the tribunal decided to divide it into a series of smaller trials.

That will allow it to hand down judgments as it proceeds, and reduces the risk that one or more of the defendants could die without a ruling being issued - as happened at the trial of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

The first mini-trial examines the alleged crimes against humanity in the forced movement of people.

That refers to two events in 1975, the year Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and drove everyone out of the towns and cities. Later that year they forced hundreds of thousands to move across the country into work camps.

The prosecution says tens of thousands of people died during those moves. Cayley says when the alleged offenses took place adds to the trial’s significance. 

“I also think it is important in the interests of international justice generally because it’s certainly part of the fight against impunity," he said. "We are looking at crimes that are 30 years old. I’m quite certain that at the time the leaders of the Khmer Rouge never believed they would be held to account for what happened, and here we actually have the most senior living members of the Khmer Rouge who will be standing trial."

In a fortnight, the court will start hearing evidence against the three. This first mini-trial is expected to take two years.