Mark Peters / ECCC / Mark Peters

Former Khmer Rouge top leaders face genocide trial in Cambodia

UN-backed court starts proceedings against members of former Cambodian regime that killed 1.7 million people

One of two elderly former top leaders of Cambodia's 1970s Khmer Rouge regime appeared in court Wednesday as part of proceedings related to their trial on charges of genocide.

The defendants, Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, are scheduled to hear the verdict next week of a 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. Samphan formerly headed the regime.

The hearing cleared the way to begin the second of two trials the former Khmer Rouge leaders face.

The chief judge, Nil Nonn, read out the new charges before lawyers began debating witness lists, reparations requests and procedural objections.

The two men were in the top leadership of the 1975-79 regime, which is generally held responsible for the deaths of about 1.7 million people from starvation, exhaustion, disease and execution.

Survivors of the communist regime's reign of terror, along with students and Buddhist monks, attended the hearing that laid down the ground rules for the trial, which judges said would likely start in September or October. The trial is taking place at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, told the Phnom Phen Post newspaper, “To many survivors, the curtain of the ECCC is being closed, and perhaps this is the end. It is a mix-feeling between despair and hope.” Chhang's research has been used in the trial.

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.

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

Anta Guisse, a lawyer for Khieu Samphan, said she was concerned that her client would not get a fair trial amid confusion over what 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 Sen. 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 defense 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 hospitalization, slowing the proceedings.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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