Khmer Rouge genocide trial opens in Cambodia

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A Cambodian looks at pictures of former Khmer Rouge leaders "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (L), ex-head of state Khieu Samphan (2nd L), ex-deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Ieng Sary (2nd R) and ex-social affairs minister Ieng Thirith (R) during their trial in Phnom Penh on November 21, 2011

Three top Khmer Rouge leaders on Monday heard charges against them of genocide and other atrocities as their "milestone" trial got under way at Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court.

"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, ex-head of state Khieu Samphan and former foreign minister Ieng Sary appeared to listen intently in the packed Phnom Penh courtroom, more than three decades after the brutal "Killing Fields" era.

They deny charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity over the deaths of up to two million people during the Khmer Rouge movement's 1975-1979 reign of terror, backed by China.

The Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown in 1979 by patriotic Cambodian liberation forces which received strong support from Vietnam. According to Wikipedia, the United States continued to aid Khmer Rouge guerrillas who fled to Thailand after the liberation. The US sided with China in supporting the Khmer Rouge in order to destabilize the Cambodian government and, helping the genocidal movement keep a seat in the United Nations until 1993.

The start of opening statements in the long-awaited case is seen as a key moment in the still-traumatized nation's quest for justice.

"It's a major milestone that finally this trial has started," said court spokesman Lars Olsen. "Many people never thought it would happen."

Missing from the session was the fourth accused Ieng Thirith -- the regime's "First Lady" and the only female leader to be charged by the court -- after she was ruled unfit for trial last week because she has dementia.

Judges have ordered her release, but she remains locked up while an appeal by the prosecution is considered, which is expected to take two weeks.

Hundreds of Cambodians, including monks, students and regime survivors, packed the court's public gallery.

"I feel very happy. I came here because I want to know the story and how it could have happened," said 75-year-old farmer Sao Kuon, who lost 11 relatives under the Khmer Rouge.

Parts of the proceedings will also be broadcast live on television.

Nearly 4,000 victims are taking part in the legal proceedings as civil parties.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, abolished money and religion and wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and executions in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.

Owing to fears that not all of the accused, who are in their 80s and suffer from varying ailments, will live to see a verdict, the court recently split their complex case into a series of smaller trials.

But during the opening statements the prosecution and the defense will address all of the accusations.

The prosecution, which was first to speak on Monday, gave the court an overview of its case against the trio.

"The evidence we will put before you will show that... the Communist Party of Kampuchea turned Cambodia into a massive slave camp, reducing an entire nation into prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief to the present day," said national co-prosecutor Chea Leang.

She spoke of the "ruthlessness" of forced evacuations, the "unbearable conditions" in forced labor sites, and of forced marriage victims who were "forced to have sex" with their assigned partners or risk being killed.

"These crimes ordered and orchestrated by the accused were among the worst horrors inflicted on any nation in modern history," she said, citing the example of one labor camp in the northwest which saw an average of 70 to 80 deaths a day.

Of the accused, only Khieu Samphan has indicated he will cooperate with the trial, saying at a court hearing in June that while he was not "fully knowledgeable" about everything that happened, he would help find "the truth".

Ieng Sary, who was frequently the only point of contact between the secretive regime and the outside world, said last month he does not intend to testify.

The case against the three is the court's second and most important after it sentenced former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch to 30 years in jail last year for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.

That case is now under appeal with a verdict expected on February 3.

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