The UN-backed tribunal opened a landmark case against three Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh on Monday, with prosecution claiming the former communists were involved in a criminal policy that led to mass atrocities.
The widely welcomed proceedings marked the first substantial hearing for the three leaders, Nuon Chea, 85, the chief ideologue of the regime; Khieu Samphan, 80, its nominal leader; and Ieng Sary, 86, its foreign minister, whose case took four years to investigate and bring to trial.
Most of Monday’s hearing was given over to the prosecution’s opening statements, which accused the three men of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other crimes related to one of the 20th Century’s worst atrocities.
“As senior leaders of the Communist Party, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan conceived to implement a criminal policy that enslaved the entire nation, pulled to their deaths 2 million people and subjected the remainder of the Cambodian people to conditions of the utmost degradation of humanity,” Cambodian prosecutor Chea Leang told Trial Chamber judges.
Their crimes, she said, were a “general and systemic attack against the Cambodian people.”
“More than 200 security centers were put to work, where several thousand people were detained, tortured and executed,” she said. “The number of victims ranged from 1.7 million to 2.2 million. For that reason, they must be responsible for the penalties of every crime.”
A brief portion of the hearing was given over to the defense teams of each suspect, who called for the resignation of international judge Sylvia Carwright and for the disclosure of information from meetings between her and the international prosecutor, Andrew Cayley, that they have claimed were improper.
Long Panhavuth, a court monitor for the Cambodia Justice Initiative, called the prosecution’s opening statement a “meaningful beginning.”
“The real trial has started,” said tribunal spokesman Neth Peaktra.
Monday’s hearing opened what is expected to be a long and complicated trial, putting the regime’s three senior-most leaders before a complex, hybrid court that took years to establish. All three leaders, who are aging or infirm, have been in detention since 2007.
A fourth leader, the former social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, was excluded from the trial last week on mental health grounds. She remains in detention, pending an appeal from the prosecution of her release order.
Nevertheless, many Cambodians at the court and in the capital expressed hopes that the trial would bring some measure of justice, more than 30 years after the brutal regime came to power.
Va Limhoan, a 55-year-old woman from Kampong Cham province who was present at the court, said she had lost 48 relatives to the Khmer Rouge.
“They killed my brother at a grave,” she said. “And in 1975, they pushed us to the grave, but I am lucky to be alive.”
Khem Vathy, 52, from Kampong Speu province, said she had been waiting for the day she would see the leaders on trial.
“If they sit near me, I will hit them with my shoes,” she said. “On Earth, no one is crueler than they.”
However, in a reminder that the leaders still have some support, Phy Poun, 64, a former messenger of Ieng Sary, told reporters at the court he was against the trial. “Ieng Sary is gentle,” he said, “and I never saw him killing his own people.”
Beyond the court, people of Phnom Penh also welcomed the beginning of the long-awaited trial.
“I want the court to sentence them to a lifetime in prison for what they did,” said Say Bunthoeun, a 45-year-old musician whose parents and brothers died under the regime.
But it remains an open question how the trial might fully bring justice to a nation that still feels deeply the impact of the three years and eight months the Khmer Rouge were in power.
“The former senior Khmer Rouge leaders must openly confess the policy of killing,” said Om Khaung, 81, who survived 22 relatives. “I will give no pardon to them. They must be jailed for a lifetime, to avoid genocides in the future.”