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39 Years After Rise of Khmer Rouge, Hope for a Trial’s End

A Khmer Rouge soldier waves his pistol and orders store owners to abandon their shops in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 17, 1975 as the capital fell to the communist forces. A large portion of the city's population was reportedly forced to evacuate.
Cambodians marked the 39th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on Thursday, with victims of the regime anxious to see the trial of two jailed leaders brought to a conclusion.

Aging leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are awaiting the second and final stage of an atrocities crime trial.

On this day in 1975, the Khmer Rouge overran the capital and began a mass exodus of the cities, pushing people into labor camps and work collectives. More than 1.7 million Cambodians died in the less than four years the Khmer Rouge held power.

“April 17 is a historic day that none of us can forget,” said Bou Meng, one of few survivors of the Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh, where his wife was tortured and executed.

Nearly 40 years later, only Kaing Kek Iev, better known as Duch, who oversaw Tuol Sleng, has been successfully brought to trial by the UN-backed tribunal.

Ieng Thirith, the former social affairs minister of the regime, was released under house arrest in 2011, found mentally unfit to stand trial. In 2013, her husband, Ieng Sary, the foreign minister for the Khmer Rouge, died in custody.

That leaves only Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who are awaiting a verdict in the first phase of their trial, as well as the beginning of the second and final phase. They are accused of atrocity crimes, including genocide, for the leadership roles in the regime.

Long Panhavuth, who monitors the tribunal at the Cambodia Justice Initiative, said their ongoing trial should serve as a reminder that such crimes will not go unpunished. “Those who are responsible for these crimes will be brought to account,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Thursday that the April 17 anniversary serves as a lesson to government leaders, “especially to prevent violence of power and to bring justice for the victims.”