THE first trial weighing charges of genocide against Cambodia’s brutal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime opened in the capital, Phnom Penh, yesterday.
A prosecutor said it will show that Cambodians were enslaved in inhumane conditions that led to the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and execution.
Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the communist group’s late leader, Pol Pot, received life sentences in August after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, relating mostly to the forced movement of millions to the countryside when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
They have appealed their convictions, and in brief statements to the court yesterday called for further trial sessions to be postponed.
Nuon Chea said the court should wait for a ruling on his plea that four judges should be dismissed for alleged bias, and Khieu Samphan said it was unfair to proceed while his defence team was still working on appealing the verdict in his first trial.
The UN-backed tribunal split the cases into two trials for fear that Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, could die before any proceedings against them could be completed.
In addition to genocide against minorities, the second trial will address – for the first time – accusations of rape and forced marriages.
It will show that Cambodians at the giant co-operatives and work sites established by the Khmer Rouge were “enslaved and subjected to inhumane conditions that led to countless deaths from starvation, overwork and disease,” Cambodian prosecutor Chea Leang told the court, as the two accused sat silently.
According to the genocide charges, Pol Pot and other senior leaders intended to wipe out members of the country’s Muslim Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
Estimates of the number of Chams killed range from 90,000 to 500,000. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were forced into neighbouring Vietnam, and virtually all of those remaining were executed.
After years of legal and political wrangling, the Khmer Rouge tribunal was established in 2006, but has been plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and financial woes.
The hybrid structure of the court, in which UN-appointed international judges and lawyers share duties with Cambodian counterparts, has led to allegations of political interference and repeated deadlock.
“Due to the unlikelihood that anyone else will be prosecuted for Khmer Rouge-era crimes, donors want the second leadership trial to be completed so that the millions of dollars they’ve expended thus far result in more than a narrow legacy of only three convicted and a few crime sites discussed, and they can anoint the court as a triumph for international and Cambodian justice,” said Anne Heindel, the author of a book about the tribunal.
In its first trial, the tribunal sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, who was also known as “Duch,” the director of the-21 torture centre, to life imprisonment.
The second trial, in which Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were convicted, opened in November 2011, but death and disability winnowed the number of defendants. Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary died last year and Pol Pot died in 1998.