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20 November 2011

30 years later, top Khmer Rouge leaders stand trial for genocide

The Associated Press
(USA newswire)
Sunday 20 November 2011

Top Khmer Rouge leaders'
trial opens in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's "killing fields" went on trial Monday before a U.N.-backed tribunal more than 30 years after some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.

Judge Nil Nonn declared the trial open Monday and read the names of the three senior Khmer Rouge leaders who are defendants in the tribunal in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The charges against the surviving inner circle of the communist movement -- all now in their 80s -- include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture stemming from their 1975-79 reign of terror.

An estimated 1,700,000 people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge's radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labor camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society. Intellectuals, entrepreneurs and anyone considered [opposed to the Khmer Rouge order] were imprisoned, tortured and often executed.

On Sunday, relatives of the victims wept as they chanted and burned incense near a glass case filled with skulls at Choeung Ek Genocide Center, a memorial built in a Phnom Penh field where the Khmer Rouge staged mass executions.

"I want to remind the victims and ask them to push this trial to find justice for those who were killed by the Khmer Rouges regime," 80-year-old Chum Mey, one of the only two survivors from the notorious S-21 prison, said at Sunday's ceremony.

Tribunal spokesman Huy Vannak called the proceedings beginning Monday "the most important trial in the world" because of the seniority of those involved.

"It sends a message that the trial, which survivors have been waiting more than three decades for, finally begins," he said.

The defendants, who sat side by side with their lawyers, are 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and the No. 2 leader behind the late Pol Pot; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister.

A fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer's disease. She is Ieng Sary's wife and served as the regime's minister for social affairs.

The regime's supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in Cambodia's jungles while a prisoner of his own comrades, who after being toppled from power fought a guerrilla war that did not fully end in the late 1990s.

The U.N.-backed tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the regime's notorious S-21 prison, last July and sentencing him to 35 years in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses.

That case was seen as much simpler than the current case, which covers a much broader range of activities and because Kaing Guek Eav confessed to his crimes. Those going on trial Monday have steadfastly maintained their innocence. The prison chief was also far lower in the regime's leadership ranks than the current defendants.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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