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Decades Later, Khmer Rouge Leaders Face War Crimes Tribunal

A tourist views photos of former Khmer Rouge prisoners at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, formerly the regime's notorious S-21 prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in a photo from 2009. (AP)

The three top leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge have faced their first day in a U.N.-backed court, accused of crimes against humanity, genocide and terrible brutality that led to the deaths of about two million Cambodians.

The defendants were the top lieutenants in Pol Pot's violent regime in Cambodia, accused of planning the genocidal atrocities. Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, is considered most senior, as the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologue; Khieu Samphan, was the Khmer Rouge head of state; and Ieng Sary, served as the Khmer Rouge foreign minister. Ieng's wife, Ieng Thirith, was the group's minister for social affairs but she didn't appear today. Last week, the court ruled Mrs. Ieng was unfit to stand trial because she has dementia. The AP reports prosecutors are contesting her unconditional release.

It's taken years to get the U.N. backed Cambodian genocide trials to this first day of court and, as with Mrs. Ieng, there's fear the defendants could fall ill or die. They've been jailed since 2007. It's happened to others: the BBC notes Pol Pot's military commander died in jail in 2006 before a trial. And there's the example of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevich, who died in his cell almost five years after he'd been extradited to face war crimes charges at the U.N. Tribunal in the Hague, says MSNBC.

So the prosecutors are breaking the trial up into shorter segments, allowing the judges to issue rulings during the proceedings, which will take months or years, instead of one lengthy verdict at the end. As VOA reports, prosecutors are starting with the accusation of the forced displacement of people. As the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, they forced two million people to leave Phnom Penh and go into the countryside. Later, during the same year, more Cambodians were forced to leave their homes and enter work camps set up in rural areas. Prosecutors allege the relocation process killed tens of thousands of people.

The New York Times (paywall) lists other charges the three Khmer Rouge leaders will face, including enslavement of Cambodians in the work camps, where many people were starved or worked to death; the use of violence to hurt or kill people who were suspected of being enemies; the use of violence to eliminate ethnic minorities; the murderous suppression of Buddhism; and the use of rape, abuse and forced marriage on women.

One of the witnesses that's expected to testify is the former head of the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was the prison's commandant. As NPR's Jackie Northam reported, Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in jail. He admitted his crimes and asked for forgiveness, but said he was following orders from senior Khmer Rouge leaders. Duch's sentence was later shortened to 19 years.

Despite the mountain of evidence that's waiting to be introduced, there's some worry about the fairness of the trial, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported in October. A German judge who was a member of the Cambodian tribunal dropped out, saying he felt pressure from Cambodia's government. The judge is supposed to assist in the investigation of alleged cases of war crimes before any are brought to trial. Anthony notes that Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has spoken against further prosecutions of Khmer Rouge leaders, saying it could harm national security.

Hun was a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla leader until he broke with Pol Pot. Time Magazine reports Hun has never been accused of involvement in Khmer Rouge crimes. Still, he may be worried that if the U.N.-backed tribunal digs too deeply, judges may find evidence of crimes committed by former Khmer Rouge officials who are now members of his ruling government, a development that could embarrass him.

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