A U.N.-backed tribunal has launched its second trial of leaders of Cambodia’s once-notorious Khmer Rouge regime, with prosecutors accusing them of overseeing mass slave camps, forced evictions, torture, and executions.
The defendants who went on trial Monday were Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s second-in-command Nuon Chea, 84, head of state Khieu Samphan, 79, and foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86.
Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, 78, who was minister for social affairs, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week due to health concerns.
All three have denied charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes allegedly committed during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule of Cambodia, during which an estimated 1.7 million people died in what has been known as the “Killing Fields.”
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley told the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which the U.N. tribunal is officially called, that the injustices committed under the Khmer Rouge regime, during which one in four Cambodians was killed, had “no parallel in the modern era.”
Cayley said the defendants maintained “exacting, minute, and obsessive control” over life and that evidence showed “their knowledge of the ongoing crimes being committed on their instructions and in their names.”
The prosecution said the defendants were guilty of five specific crimes: the forced movement of the urban population to rural areas; the enslavement of the population; the use of violence to eliminate enemies; the targeting of specific groups including Buddhist monks, Cham Muslims, and ethnic Vietnamese; and the use of forced marriage to increase the population.
Cayley said that the men had worked with Pol Pot, who died in 1998 before he could be brought to justice, in a concerted strategy to brutalize the nation.
Campaign of genocide
Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Lang told the tribunal that the Khmer Rouge had run the country as “a massive slave camp, turning the entire nation into a prison.”
She said that the regime had specifically targeted the Cham Muslim minority during a campaign of genocide that included ethnic Vietnamese and Buddhist monks.
“The massacres were planned by and reported to the highest echelons of the [Khmer Rouge],” Chea Leang said.
She said that cadres who carried out the killings were acting “strictly within the orders and policies of the accused,” and that the leaders were informed of what was being done.
The prosecution will continue through Tuesday, at which point the defense will take the floor. Evidence will be presented beginning Dec. 5.
Some 4,000 civil parties are involved in the proceedings as victims of crimes allegedly perpetrated by the defendants.
The opening of the second trial marks the latest development in a complex case which seeks justice for some the many Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge era. The tribunal has been dogged by allegations of corruption and inefficiency since it was established seven years ago.
Last month, Siegfried Blunk, the tribunal's international co-investigating judge, resigned citing interference by Hun Sen's government, though several rights groups and Khmer Rouge victims had earlier demanded he step down for “bowing to political pressure” in his handling of the trial process.
Rowan Downing and Katinka Lahuis, the two international judges on a tribunal chamber that rules on disputes while a case is still under investigation, had listed a string of questionable actions by Blunk and his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng in a 12-page minority decision.
Downing and Lahuis said the two had backdated documents, inexplicably refused to recognize civil-party lawyers, prevented civil-party lawyers from accessing the case file despite repeated requests and, in so doing, denied victims the “fundamental right to legal representation.”
They also suggested that the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges had made many mistakes under the management of Blunk and You and should reconsider the two judges’ rejection of a civil party application by New Zealand national Robert Hamill.
Hamill’s brother was said to have been tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.
The U.N. Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs, Patricia O'Brien, visited Cambodia last month and urged the government to "refrain from interfering in any way whatsoever with the judicial process."
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly denied any interference in the tribunal proceedings.
The ECCC has so far completed just one trial which led to the jailing last year of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, for 30 years for overseeing the deaths of thousands of people. His case is now under appeal.
In September, the court divided the case against surviving Khmer Rouge leaders into a series of smaller cases in order to speed up proceedings.
Many of the defendants are elderly and infirm, and observers fear that not all of them will live to see a verdict.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the tribunal beyond the second trial.
Many do not expect the third and fourth cases to proceed.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.