Four surviving senior members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime have shown little interest in cooperating as their trial gets underway in Phnom Penh.
Present at the preliminary hearing were Pol Pot’s former second-in-command, Nuon Chea, 84, former head of state Khieu Samphan, 79, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 85, and his wife Ieng Thirith, 78, who was minister for social affairs.
The defendants are charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their role in overseeing the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-1979. All four deny the accusations.
But soon after the UN-backed proceedings began at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) on Monday morning, the defendants, all of whom are in or near their 80s, began to complain that their health conditions made them unfit to stand trial.
In his opening statement, Noun Chea, asked the court to allow him to wear a knit hat, sweatshirt, and sunglasses in the courtroom due to health concerns.
“I am not happy with this hearing. I would delegate the duty of presenting the reason for my unhappiness to my lawyer,” Nuon Chea told the court.
Shortly after, Nuon Chea and two other defendants left the courtroom, saying they felt unwell.
Chum Mey, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison, said the failing health of the four defendants should not be grounds for delaying their trial.
“[Nuon Chea] is not happy with the court. Well, I am not happy with him either,” he said.
“Why isn’t he happy? Is it because the court is going to try him?”
During the proceedings, the defense attorney representing Ieng Sary argued that his client was being unfairly subjected to double jeopardy because he had already been tried and accused of genocide by a Vietnamese-sponsored People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in 1979.
Ieng Sary received a royal pardon in 1996 as part of a bargain which resulted in the surrender of the remaining Khmer Rouge military units.
The court prosecutor has responded that under ECCC codes, the concept of double jeopardy does not apply.
The hearing for the four defendants will last four days, during which the court will listen to witness and expert testimonies and preliminary legal objections. No evidence will be presented.
The regular trial is expected to begin in September.
Cambodians hope the trial, which is being broadcast on national television, will help to explain the actions of the Khmer Rouge during their bloody four-year rule of the country and bring some closure to the era.
Nearly 4,000 victims will also be allowed to participate as civil parties.
But the judicial process is expected to take years due to the complexity of the case and it is unknown whether the four defendants, who have been in custody since 2007, will live to see the end of the trial.
The new trial follows the sentencing of former Khmer Rouge prison warden Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, to 30 years in prison last July for crimes against humanity, torture, and premeditated murder as overseer of the Tuol Sleng, or S-21, torture prison in the late 1970s.
Thousands of inmates were taken from S-21 to a nearby orchard for execution.
Duch, 68, had his sentence reduced to 19 years due to a lengthy detention period before his arrest. He had been detained in 1999, but was not formally arrested until 2007.
He is expected to stand as a witness in the current trial.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen criticized the tribunal after a co-prosecutor recommended that more suspects be investigated in addition to Duch and the four most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders now on trial.
According to the Associated Press, Hun Sen is “presumably wary that political allies who once served with the Khmer Rouge—as he did—could face prosecution” if the court allows further indictments.
Former Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, and several other possible defendants, including Pol Pot’s former right-hand man Son Sen and senior military leader Ta Mok all died before they could be brought to trial.
Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.