Khmer Rouge chiefs in dock over 1.7m deaths
More than three decades after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime was swept from power in Cambodia, four of its most senior surviving cadre went on trial before a UN-backed tribunal.
The ageing quartet are in the dock to answer allegations they were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians -- almost a quarter of the population -- from disease, starvation, overwork, torture and execution in the "killing fields" in one of the most complex cases in generations.
The four were the closest confidantes of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, "brother number one", as the Maoist regime sought to establish an agrarian utopia, executing intellectuals and sending survivors to work in the fields, leaving cities like ghost towns. Pol Pot died in 1998.
In the specially built Phnom Penh courthouse Nuon Chea, (84), "brother number two" to Pol Pot; Khieu Samphan (79), the nominal head of state; Ieng Sary (85), the foreign minister and the regime's international face; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, (79), the social affairs minister, are being held to account.
All deny the charges and at least one, Ieng Sary, will argue he should not be before the court at all as he was given a royal pardon 15 years ago as part of deal with the government that saw a mass defection of the Khmer Rouge rump and ended years of civil war.
The case, the second before the unique UN tribunal that is described as the most intricate since the Nazi war crimes trials after World War Two, is expected to last years. Yesterday's initial hearing will last four days and be taken up with technical issues, with the trial proper not expected to begin until September.
One of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious figures Kaing Guek Eav (68), the chief interrogator and torturer responsible for the deaths of at least 15,000 Cambodians during the regime's four-year reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, is already behind bars.
Better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, last July he was sentenced to 35 years which was reduced to 19 years for time already spent in jail.
Yet compared to the four leaders now on trial, his case, which spanned several years, was regarded as fairly straight-forward as he confessed his role.
More than 4,000 "civil parties" -- victims and the bereaved who will have a voice alongside the prosecution and defence -- will be hoping that they finally receive answers to questions that have burned for decades, particularly the thinking and processes that drove the regime.
"I lost three children, my father and husband," said Som Hoeun, a 66-year old villager from the southern province of Kompong Speu as she queued up to get into the court.
She said it was worth the wait to see Pol Pot's top cadres brought to book: "No matter what how long it has been, I'm always hopeful there will be justice."
The four are charged with committing crimes against humanity and genocide and accused of a litany of crimes under both international and Cambodian laws, including murder, enslavement, religious and political persecution, inhumane treatment and unlawful imprisonment.
Except for Khieu Samphan, none of the defendants have shown willingness to co-operate and there are concerns Cambodians will be deprived of the chance to hear first-hand accounts of the motivation and ideology that fuelled an unrelenting killing spree. (© Daily Telegraph, London)