PHNOM PENH: Cambodians were reminded of their tragic history yesterday as the trial began of three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's 'Killing Fields' in the late 1970s.
The prosecution started its case at the United Nations-backed tribunal more than three decades after the South-east Asian country endured some of the 20th century's worst atrocities. Two-thirds of Cambodians today were not yet born when the communist group's reign of terror ended in 1979.
The defendants are old and infirm, and there are fears they will not live long enough for justice to be done.
IENG THIRITH: The most powerful woman in the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Thirith, 79, is Ieng Sary's wife and was Pol Pot's sister-in-law.
Sometimes described as the 'First Lady' of the Khmer Rouge, she acted as social affairs minister and is held responsible for the regime's drastic re-ordering of traditional Cambodian life.
Court-appointed experts told the tribunal last month that she suffers from dementia and most likely has Alzheimer's disease. Trial chamber judges recently ruled that she was unfit for trial.
NUON CHEA: 'Brother No. 2' to ruthless Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, ailing Nuon Chea is believed to have been a key architect of the regime's death machine.
One of the last top regime leaders to surrender in a deal with the government, Nuon Chea has acknowledged the deaths that took place under the Khmer Rouge's rule but denies he was in a position to stop the disaster that unfolded.
KHIEU SAMPHAN: A French-educated radical, Khieu Samphan served as head of state for Pol Pot's regime, and was one of its few diplomats who had contact with the outside world.
The 80-year-old claimed he was an intellectual and nationalist who knew little, until long afterwards, of the devastation wrought during the Khmer Rouge regime.
IENG SARY: Known as 'Brother No. 3', the now 86-year-old served as foreign minister under Pol Pot, who was also his brother-in-law.
Ieng Sary was found guilty of genocide in a 1979 Vietnamese-backed trial, widely regarded as a sham. He was granted a royal amnesty in 1996 but a court recently ruled that the amnesty did not bar him from further prosecution.
Yesterday, they sat side by side with their lawyers in the courtroom especially built for the tribunal: 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, a former 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 was the regime's minister for social affairs.
The charges include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Their leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades.
An estimated 1.7 million 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 labour camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.
'This is the first (trial) of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for enacting a series of policies that led to the deaths of nearly two million people,' said Ms Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the independent Documentation Centre of Cambodia.
'There is hope that it will help Cambodians understand why it happened, why Khmer killed Khmer, and will teach the younger generation to ensure it will never happen again,' she said.
Mr Meas Sery, 51, said he came to the hearing from his home in Prey Veng province to see for himself the faces of the defendants. He said he lost four siblings under the Khmer Rouge regime.
'I am happy to see these three leaders brought to the court. I believe that justice will come,' he said.
Ms Chea Leang, Cambodian co-prosecutor, recalled for the court the brutalities of Khmer Rouge rule, beginning on April 17, 1975, when they captured Phnom Penh, ending a bitter five-year civil war, and began the forced evacuation to the countryside of the estimated one million people who had sheltered in the capital.
Personal property was banned, religion, press and all personal freedoms abolished. The evidence, she said, would show that the regime presided over by the defendants 'was one of the most brutal and horrific in modern history'.
Some of those attending the trial provided their own vignettes of the terror.
Mr Chim Phorn, 72, was chief of a commune under the Khmer Rouge regime in Bantheay Meanchey province in the north-west. In 1977, he said, he beat a couple to death with an axe handle.
'I was ordered to kill the young couple because they fell in love without being married,' he said. 'If I did not kill them, my supervisor would have killed me, so to save my life, I had no choice but to kill them.'
When the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot took power in 1975, they all but sealed off the country to the outside world and sent all city dwellers to vast rural communes. Intellectuals, entrepreneurs and anyone considered a threat were imprisoned, tortured and often executed.
Economic and social disaster ensued. Vietnam, whose border provinces had suffered bloody attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sponsored a resistance and invaded, ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installing a client regime.
The UN-backed tribunal, 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 offences.
His sentence was reduced to a 19-year term due to time served and other technicalities.