Four top Khmer Rouge leaders will stand trial for crimes, including genocide, during the “Killing Fields” era, Cambodia’s UN-backed court said yesterday, just weeks after its landmark first conviction.
“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Khmer Rouge founder Pol Pot, was formally indicted along with former foreign minister Ieng Sary, social affairs minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan.
Judge You Bunleng hailed the decision as a success for the tribunal, listing a litany of charges against the top members of the blood-soaked regime, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist regime emptied the cities and abolished money and schools in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia, wiping out nearly a quarter of the country’s population before they were ousted from the capital by Vietnamese forces.
The trial, expected to begin early next year, will be the court’s second, following the historic sentencing of former prison chief Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, in July for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The 67-year-old was given a jail term of 30 years for his role overseeing the executions of an estimated 15,000 men, women and children, but could walk free in 19 years given time already served, to the dismay of survivors.
The four newly indicted leaders have been in detention since their arrests in 2007 in connection with the regime’s bloody rule over Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when up to 2 million people died from starvation, overwork or execution.
The genocide charges relate specifically to the deaths of Vietnamese people and ethnic Cham Muslims under the regime.
Estimates for the number of Cham who died under the Khmer Rouge range from 100,000 to 400,000, but it is not known how many Vietnamese were killed.
The upcoming trial is expected to be a lengthy and complex one, with all four leaders disputing the charges against them.
However, in a documentary last year, Enemies of the People, Nuon Chea — the movement’s chief ideologue — admits the regime killed perceived traitors if they could not be “re-educated” or “corrected.”
“These people were categorized as criminals ... They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people,” said Nuon Chea, now 84.
Ieng Sary, or “Brother Number Three,” acted as the public face of the secretive regime. Since his arrest by the UN tribunal, the 84-year-old’s health has deteriorated significantly.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, now 78, is sometimes described as the “First Lady” of the Khmer Rouge. Her sister was married to Pol Pot.
She blames Nuon Chea for the crimes committed by the hardline communist government, and in a furious outburst last year told members of the court they would be “cursed to the seventh circle of hell.”
The final defendant Khieu Samphan, 79, served as head of state and was one of the reclusive regime’s few diplomats who had contact with the outside world.
Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said the indictments were “very good news for the people of Cambodia.”
“It’s what they’ve been waiting for for more than 30 years,” he said outside the court. “The indictments can be part of the healing process for the victims.”