‘Killing Fields’ leaders on trial

2010-09-16 13:20


Phnom Penh - Four top Khmer Rouge leaders will stand trial for crimes including genocide during the "Killing Fields" era, Cambodia's UN-backed court said on Thursday, just weeks after its landmark first conviction.

"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Khmer Rouge founder Pol Pot, was formally indicted along with former foreign minister Ieng Sary, social affairs minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan.

Judge You Bunleng hailed the decision as a success for the tribunal, listing a litany of charges against the top members of the blood-soaked regime, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist regime emptied the cities and abolished money and schools in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia, wiping out nearly a quarter of the country's population before they were ousted from the capital by Vietnamese forces.

Second historic sentencing

The trial, expected to begin in early 2011, will be the court's second, following the historic sentencing of former prison chief Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, in July for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The 67-year-old was given a jail term of 30 years for his role in overseeing the executions of an estimated 15 000 men, women and children. However, he could be free in 19 years given time already served, to the dismay of survivors.

The four newly indicted leaders have been in detention since their arrests in 2007 in connection with the regime's bloody rule over Cambodia from 1975-79, when up to two million people died from starvation, overwork or execution.

The genocide charges relate specifically to the deaths of Vietnamese people and ethnic Cham Muslims under the regime.

Thousands killed

Estimates for the number of Cham who died under the Khmer Rouge range from 100 000 to 400 000, but it is not known how many Vietnamese were killed.

The upcoming trial is expected to be a lengthy and complex one with all four leaders disputing the charges against them.

However, in the 2009 documentary Enemies of the People, Nuon Chea - the movement's chief ideologue - admits the regime killed perceived traitors if they could not be "re-educated" or "corrected".

"These people were categorised as criminals.... They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people," said Nuon Chea, now 84.

Ieng Sary, or "Brother Number Three", acted as the public face of the secretive regime. Since his arrest by the UN tribunal, the 84-year-old's health has deteriorated significantly.

His wife, Ieng Thirith, now 78, is sometimes described as the "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge. Her sister was married to Pol Pot.

She blames Nuon Chea for the crimes committed by the hard line communist government, and in a furious outburst last year told members of the court they would be "cursed to the seventh circle of hell".

Good news for Cambodians

The final defendant Khieu Samphan, 79, served as head of state and was one of the reclusive regime's few diplomats who had contact with the outside world.

Tribunal spokesperson Reach Sambath said the indictments were "very good news for the people of Cambodia".

"It's what they've been waiting for, for more than 30 years," he said outside the court. "The indictments can be part of the healing process for the victims."

The tribunal may be the last chance to find justice for victims since many top regime figures are now either dead or ailing. The judges said they were doing everything possible to monitor the four on a daily basis.

The court is also investigating whether to open more cases against five other former Khmer Rouge cadres, but faces political and financial pressures.

Prime Minister Hun Sen - himself a mid-level Khmer Rouge cadre before turning against the movement - said last year he would "prefer for this court to fail" than see new cases opened, saying further trials could drive the country back to civil war.

Frenchman Marcel Lemonde, one of the tribunal's two co-investigating judges, announced on Thursday he was quitting and will focus on other projects. He will be replaced by German Siegfried Blunk.

Read more on:    cambodia  |  genocide

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