11/21/2011, 00.00
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Trial against three ex-Khmer Rouge leaders opens in Phnom Penh

A former president, foreign minister and ‘Brother Number 2’ are in the dock. The only top woman official, Ieng Tirith, is unfit to stand for trial because of dementia. The accused must answer charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hundreds of Cambodians want justice and the truth.
Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court on Monday opened the trial of three top Khmer Rouge leaders more than three decades after the country's brutal "Killing Fields" era when Maoist revolutionaries under Pol Pot ran a cruel dictatorship that led to the death of a quarter of the population (almost 2,000,000 people out of 8,000,000). As he opened the hearing, Judge Nil Nonn laid out the case against Nuon Chea, "Brother Number Two", former president Khieu Samphan and former foreign minister Ieng Sary.

The regime's three most senior surviving members deny charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity over the deaths of up to two million people during the communist movement's 1975-1979 reign of terror.

Of the accused, only Khieu Samphan has indicated that he would cooperate, telling the court in June that while he was not "fully knowledgeable" about everything that happened, he would help to find "the truth".

Missing from the courtroom was fourth accused Ieng Thirith, the regime's "First Lady" and the only female leader to be charged by the court, after she was ruled unfit for trial last week because she has dementia. Judges have ordered her release, but she remains locked up whilst an appeal by the prosecution is considered. The latter is expected to take two weeks.

Hundreds of Cambodians, including monks, students and regime survivors, packed the court's public gallery on Monday for the first of four days of opening statements in the landmark case, seen as vital for providing some justice for the still-traumatised nation.

Many Cambodians are in fact still living under the shadow of the mass trauma inflicted by the Communist regime in spite of attempts by government leaders to “forget” the tragedy in the name of social peace and national cohesion.

"I feel very happy. I came here because I want to know the story and how it could have happened," said 75-year-old farmer Sao Kuon, who lost 11 relatives under the Khmer Rouge.

After trying to bury the past and promote economic growth and wealth, Cambodians, especially the young, appear interested in their country’s recent past, both the conditions that led to the rise of someone like Pol Pot (who died in 1998 without facing trial) and the aftermath of the regime’s collapse.

Khmer Rouge ideology focused on creating a “new man”, connected to land and farming, but ended up provoking the largest mass murder in recent history through malnutrition, forced labour and mass execution.

The current United Nations trial against the three former leaders is the second of its kind. Mired in controversy over corruption and inefficiencies, the court has already sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, aka ‘comrade Duch’ to 30 years in prison.

‘Duch’ is the only Khmer Rouge leader to admit his responsibilities and to ask for forgiveness. He ran the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, which held officials from the old regime. An estimated 15,000 people died at the facility, and only seven inmates came out alive. The case is now under appeal with a verdict expected on 3 February.

A third round of trials is planned for other Khmer Rouge officials; however, the Cambodian government is opposed to it, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre himself, who has made it clear that he wants the court's work to end with case two, even saying last year that more trials would not be "allowed".
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