The four most senior surviving members of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime went on trial for war crimes yesterday, three decades after its “year zero” revolution marked one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
The defendants, all now elderly and infirm, were among the inner circle of the late Cambodian leader Pol Pot, the French-educated architect of the Khmer Rouge’s ultra-Maoist revolution that resulted in the death of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.
Dressed in casual clothes, “Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea, former president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith showed no emotion as opening statements to the UN-backed tribunal were read before a packed auditorium in proceedings screened on national television.
Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population were wiped out under the Khmer Rouge through torture, execution, starvation and exhaustion.
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.
All four defendants are expected to enter not guilty pleas. “Brother No. 1” Pol Pot, died in 1998.
The opening session was dominated by moves from Ieng Sary’s lawyers to have his case thrown out for reasons of double jeopardy. He was sentenced to death by a court created by Vietnamese invaders in 1979 and pardoned by then Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk 17 years later.
“An individual cannot be tried twice for a crime that a court already acquitted or convicted him for,” lawyer Ang Udom said. “Bringing Ieng Sary to trial again is a violation.”
The pardon for Ieng Sary, a reclusive guerilla leader, came as part of a peace deal between warring factions in Cambodia. Prosecutors are expected to argue the pardon was for the death sentence, not the charges he currently faces.
Except for Khieu Samphan, none of the defendants have shown any willingness to cooperate 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 by one of the world’s most enigmatic regimes.
The closest any of the former cadres have come to disclosure is seen in an award-winning documentary film yet to be released in Cambodia entitled Enemies of the People, in which Nuon Chea, during six years of recorded interviews with a the journalist, admitted those seen as threats to the party line were “corrected” at the behest of the regime.
The filmmakers have said they would not hand over tapes if asked by the court, although material shown in the film can be used by prosecutors once in the public domain.
Wearing dark sunglasses, a ski hat and sweatshirt, Nuon Chea, 84, complained he was in poor health and was too cold and left the courtroom moments after the proceedings began.
The case is a crucial test of whether the multi-million dollar Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid international-led tribunal created in 2005, can deliver justice.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said the start of the second case was a “cathartic moment” that he hoped would help bring some closure.