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UN paves way for Khmer Rouge genocide trial

Two former leaders of Pol Pot's regime accused of playing a role in the deaths of 1.7 million people in the 1970s.

Last updated: 30 Jul 2014 17:33
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Most of the defendants of the genocide case are in advanced age and in poor health. [Reuters]

A United Nations-assisted tribunal has cleared the way to begin the genocide trial of two elderly former top leaders of Cambodia's 1970s Khmer Rouge regime.

Survivors of the communist regime's reign of terror, along with students and Buddhist monks, attended a hearing on Wednesday that laid down the ground rules for the trial, which judges said would likely start in September or October.

The mass killings of an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 ethnic Cham Muslims and 20,000 Vietnamese form the basis of the genocide charges against Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83.

In a separate case, the two have also been accused of playing a role in the deaths of about 1.7 million people from starvation, exhaustion, disease and execution during the regime headed by Pol Pot, who died in 1998. 

The two senior leaders are scheduled to hear the verdict next week of that first trial against them for war crimes and crimes against humanity, related mostly to the forced movement of millions of people to the countryside when the Khmer Rouge took power.

At Wednesday's hearing, the chief judge, Nil Nonn, read out the new charges before lawyers began debating witness lists, reparations requests and procedural objections.

Khieu Samphan attended the hearing and appeared to be in good health, at times taking notes. Nuon Chea, however, remained in his holding cell because he is unable to sit for long periods of time.

Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them has been divided into separate trials, in hopes that they will live long enough to have some judgments against them completed.

Justice 'muddied'

Legal experts have argued that such an approach muddies the pursuit of justice.

Anta Guisse, a lawyer for Khieu Samphan, said she was concerned her client would not get a fair trial amid confusion over which evidence or findings from the first trial would be carried over into the upcoming one.

Among the scores of proposed witnesses, lawyers for Nuon Chea urged the court to consider calling three senior members of Cambodia's current government: National Assembly President Heng Samrin, Senate President Chea Sim and Senator Ouk Bunchoeun.

All three served as high-ranking cadres before defecting from the Khmer Rouge and aiding in its overthrow. Long-serving current Prime Minister Hun Sen was also a Khmer Rouge defector.

Previous efforts by the defence to have members of the government testify have stoked political tensions and been shot down.

The first trial began in November 2011 with four defendants, but Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March 2013, and his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan required occasional hospitalisation, slowing the proceedings.

Although Wednesday's hearing was purely procedural, it stirred unpleasant feelings for some.

Om Bopha, 59, a Khmer Rouge survivor who was a victim of forced marriage, said she attended the hearing hoping to see the judicial process in action.

Instead, she said: "Once I arrived in the court and saw Khieu Samphan's face, it made me think me that the Khmer Rouge have not yet been toppled."

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