A UN-backed court in Cambodia has started a landmark genocide
trial of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders, whose brutal regime in the
late 1970s killed nearly a quarter of the population.
A UN-backed tribunal began hearings Monday into the cases of four
Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide and crimes against humanity
from 1975 to 1979 after toppling a pro-US regime at the end of the
Vietnam War. The procedural battles in the landmark trial underline
the tribunal's complex makeup.
As many as one-fourth of Cambodia's population died from
execution, famine, torture, and overwork under the Khmer Rouge,
which tried to build a classless agrarian utopia sealed off from
foreign influences. The group was driven from power by invading
Vietnamese forces and fought a guerrilla war that lasted into the
1990s before it collapsed.
All four suspects deny the accusations and some have challenged
the court's jurisdiction, setting the stage for a lengthy and
complex trial. Using witnesses and written evidence, prosecutors
will try to show a chain of command between the leadership and the
mass killings and other abuses carried out in its name. The
indictment cites the deliberate targeting of ethnic minorities as
evidence of genocide. Other charges include war crimes, torture, and
The Khmer Rouge tribunal was set up in 2005 to provide
accountability and justice to a nation that has struggled to come to
terms with its violent past. Until now, it has only prosecuted a
prison-camp director who was sentenced last year to 19 years in
The current batch of suspects, however, may be the last to be
tried, as investigating judges appear unwilling to take on further
cases. Legal experts say pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who
wants to limit the tribunal's scope, as well as fatigue among some
foreign donors, have weighed on the court.
In a preview of the legal battles ahead, a lawyer for Nuon Chea,
the regime's second in command, accused the court Monday of bowing
to political pressure. The lawyer cited the tribunal's failure to
take on other cases as a sign of such interference. "The sole
purpose of the judicial investigation was to collect evidence
against our client and ignore the evidence that would put [him]...
in a positive light," says Mr. Nuon's lawyer, Michael Pestman, as
opposed to the impartial investigation it was set up to be.
Monday's pretrial hearings
Hundreds of Cambodians packed the public gallery to watch the
pretrial sparring between legal teams. Substantive hearings and
witness testimony are expected to start by September, though the
trial could run for several years, raising doubts about the
longevity of the aging cadres, some of whom are said to be in poor