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Start of Khmer Rouge trial opens vignettes of the terror

Cambodians were bluntly reminded of their tragic history yesterday as the trial began of three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's "killing fields" in the late 1970s.

Ieng Sary, left, the foreign minister during the Khmer Rouge regime, is helped by court security personnel. He stands on trial with two other top-ranked officials from the regime which tortured and killed thousands of Cambodians.
Ieng Sary, left, the foreign minister during the Khmer Rouge regime, is helped by court security personnel. He stands on trial with two other top-ranked officials from the regime which tortured and killed thousands of Cambodians.

PHNOM PENH // Cambodians were bluntly reminded of their tragic history yesterday as the trial began of three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's "killing fields" in the late 1970s.

After Judge Nil Nonn declared the trial open, the prosecution started its case at the UN-backed tribunal - more than three decades after the country witnessed some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.

An estimated 1.7 million people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge's radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labour camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.

The defendants are old and infirm, and there are fears they will not live long enough for justice to be done.

Yesterday, they sat side by side with their lawyers in the courtroom especially built for the tribunal, as the prosecutors read opening statements describing the scope of their alleged crimes.

Present were Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No 2 leader; Khieu Samphan, 80, an ex-head of state; and Ieng Sary, 86, the former foreign minister. They showed little reaction as a litany of charges was read out against them.

A fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer's disease. She is Ieng Sary's wife and was the regime's minister for social affairs. She remains detained pending a court decision on prosecutors' appeal against her unconditional release.

The charges against the surviving inner circle of the communist movement include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Their leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades.

"This is the first [trial] of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for enacting a series of policies that led to the deaths of nearly 2 million people," said Anne Heindel, a legal adviser to the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"There is hope that it will help Cambodians understand why it happened, why Khmer killed Khmer, and will teach the younger generation to ensure it will never happen again," she said. Two-thirds of Cambodians today were not yet born when the communist group's reign of terror ended in 1979.

Prosecution statements continue today, to be followed by two days of response by the defence. The hybrid tribunal has joint teams of Cambodian and international personnel for both the lawyers' and judges' roles. Actual testimony is scheduled to begin on December 5.

Meas Sery, 51, said he came to yesterday's hearing from his home in Prey Veng province to see the faces of the defendants. He said he lost four siblings under the Khmer Rouge regime.

"Even though there is no verdict be announced yet, I am happy to see these three leaders brought to the court. I believe that justice will come and I will receive it soon," Meas Srey said.

The trial's effect should go beyond Cambodia, said Clair Duffy of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been monitoring the tribunal's work.

Because it not only subjects the former leaders to the scrutiny of the law but also gives victims a forum to tell their stories, it has "a huge potential not only to contribute to justice in Cambodia, but also to contribute dialogue to ongoing efforts to bring perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities to justice around the world".

Chea Leang, Cambodian co-prosecutor, recalled for the court the brutalities of Khmer Rouge rule, beginning on April 17, 1975, when they captured Phnom Penh to end a bitter five-year civil war, and immediately began the forced evacuation to the countryside of the estimated one million people who had lived in the capital.

She recounted the new social order established by the group: an all-enveloping system of forced labour, with personal property banned, religion, press and all personal freedoms abolished. It was rule by terror.

Before the court adjourned for the day, Chea Leang insisted the evidence would show that the regime the defendants led "was one of the most brutal and horrific in modern history."

Some of those attending the trial provided their own vignettes of the terror.

Chim Phorn, 72, was chief of a commune under the Khmer Rouge regime in Banteay Meanchey province in the north-west. He said that in 1977, he killed a young couple who were in a romantic relationship without being married, a breach of rules. He said he beat the couple to death with an axe handle.

"I was ordered to kill the young couple because they fell in love without being married," Chhim Phorn said. "If I did not kill them, my supervisor would have killed me, so to save my life, I had no choice but to kill them."

Now, he said, he felt remorse and hated the Khmer Rouge leaders for what they made him do.

In September, the tribunal announced it would split up the indictments according to charge into separate trials to expedite the proceedings. The current trial is considering charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity.

Even with the streamlining, the proceedings are likely to cover an enormous amount of ground, and there is no estimate of how long they will take.

Pol Pot had led the Khmer Rouge from its clandestine revolutionary origins to open resistance after a 1970 coup installed a pro-American government and dragged Cambodia directly into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War.

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they all but sealed off the country to the outside world and sent all city dwellers to vast rural communes. Intellectuals, entrepreneurs and anyone considered a threat were jailed, tortured and often executed.

Economic and social disaster ensued, but the failures only fed the group's paranoia, and suspected traitors were hunted down, only plunging the country further into chaos.

Vietnam, whose border provinces had suffered bloody attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sponsored a resistance movement and invaded, ousting the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 and installing a client regime.

The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the regime's notorious S-21 prison, last July and sentencing him to 35 years in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offences. His sentence was reduced to a 19-year term because of time served and other technicalities.

That case was seen as much simpler than the current case, which covers a much broader range of activities and because Kaing Guek Eav confessed to his crimes and was implicated by a trove of meticulously kept prison records.

Those going on trial yesterday have steadfastly maintained their innocence. The prison chief was also far lower in the regime's leadership ranks than the current defendants.

Charges of political interference in the trial have overshadowed the case in the past year. Critics alleged that the tribunal was bending to pressure from the Cambodian government to charge no more suspects.

The prime minister, Hun Sen, has publicly declared he is against further trials, which he claimed could destabilise the country. Additional prosecutions could target some of his political allies who used to be with the Khmer Rouge - as he was himself, before defecting.

On trial

Nuon Chea

“Brother Number Two” to the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, ailing Nuon Chea – who defected to the government in 1998 – is believed by researchers to have been a key architect of the regime’s death machine.

In their book Seven Candidates for Prosecution, genocide scholars Stephen Heder and Brian Tittemore said there was substantial evidence the 85-year-old played a leading role in devising and implementing execution policies.

One of the last top regime leaders to surrender in a deal with the government, Nuon Chea has acknowledged the deaths that took place under the Khmer Rouge’s rule but denies he was in a position to stop the disaster that unfolded.

Ieng Sary

Known as “Brother Number Three”, the 86-year-old served as foreign minister under Pol Pot, who was also his brother-in-law.

He was a young radical at university in France before he emerged as one of the few public faces of the Khmer Rouge.

Ieng Sary was found guilty of genocide in a 1979 Vietnamese-backed trial, widely regarded as a sham. He was granted a royal amnesty in 1996 after he defected to the Cambodian government.

The court ruled in early November that the amnesty did not bar Ieng Sary from further prosecution.

Khieu Samphan

A French-educated radical, Khieu Samphan served as head of state for Pol Pot’s regime, and was one of its few diplomats who had contact with the outside world.

The 80-year-old has never denied the bloodletting suffered under the Khmer Rouge but has also never admitted to a role in the regime’s brutal excesses.

Instead, he has styled himself as an intellectual and nationalist who claims he knew little, until long afterwards, of the devastation that was wrought during the Khmer Rouge’s nearly four years in power.

He defected to the government side with Nuon Chea in 1998.