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Top Khmer Rouge leaders' trial opens in Cambodia

CORRECTS SPELLING TO CHOEUNG EK THROUGHOUT - A tourist takes pictures of human skulls of Cambodian Khmer Rouge victims at Choeung Ek stupa, better known 'Killing field' on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. Some 200 Khmer Rouge victims on Sunday gathered at Choeung Ek for a Buddhist ceremony to dedicate to the souls of the dead before the start of the trial for former Khmer Rouge leaders. CORRECTS SPELLING TO CHOEUNG EK THROUGHOUT - A tourist takes pictures of human skulls of Cambodian Khmer Rouge victims at Choeung Ek stupa, better known "Killing field" on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. Some 200 Khmer Rouge victims on Sunday gathered at Choeung Ek for a Buddhist ceremony to dedicate to the souls of the dead before the start of the trial for former Khmer Rouge leaders. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
By Sopheng Cheang
Associated Press / November 20, 2011

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's "killing fields" went on trial Monday before a U.N.-backed tribunal more than three decades after some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.

Judge Nil Nonn declared the trial open Monday and read the names of the three senior Khmer Rouge leaders who are defendants in the tribunal in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The charges against the surviving inner circle of the communist movement -- all now in their 80s -- include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture stemming from their 1975-79 reign of terror.

An estimated 1.7 million people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge's radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labor camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society. Intellectuals, entrepreneurs and anyone considered a threat were imprisoned, tortured and often executed.

Tribunal spokesman Huy Vannak called the proceedings beginning Monday "the most important trial in the world" because of the seniority of those involved.

"It sends a message that the trial, which survivors have been waiting more then three decades for, finally begins," he said.

The defendants, who sat side by side with their lawyers, are 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and the No. 2 leader behind the late Pol Pot; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister.

A fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer's disease. She is Ieng Sary's wife and served as the regime's minister for social affairs.

The Khmer Rouge's supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in Cambodia's jungles while a prisoner of his own comrades, who after being toppled from power fought a guerrilla war that did not fully end until the late 1990s.

There is serious concern that justice may not be done if any of the aging and infirm defendants dies before a trial is finished.

In September, the tribunal announced it would split up the indictments according to charge into separate trials in order to expedite the proceedings. The current trial is considering charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity.

"It's the first time the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge is being tried by a court with international backing. It's the first time thousands of victims have had a forum to tell their stories, and demand reparations for their suffering," said Clair Duffy of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been monitoring the tribunal's work.

"It therefore has a huge potential not only to contribute to justice in Cambodia, but also to contribute dialogue to ongoing efforts to bring perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities to justice around the world."

Chea Leang, Cambodian co-prosecutor, recalled for the court the brutalities of Khmer Rouge rule, beginning on April 17, 1975, when they captured Phnom Penh to end a bitter five-year civil war, and immediately began the forced evacuation to the countryside of the estimated 1 million people who had sheltering in the capital.

She also recounted the new social order established by the group: Personal property was banned, religion, press and all personal freedoms abolished.

Pol Pot had led the Khmer Rouge from its clandestine revolutionary origins to open resistance after a 1970 coup installed a pro-American government and dragged Cambodia directly into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War.

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they all but sealed off the country to the outside world. Sending the inhabitants of the cities off to vast rural communes was part of an effort to turn the country into a socialist utopia.

Economic and social disaster ensued, but the failures only fed the group's paranoia, and suspected traitors said to be working with the U.S., or Vietnam, the country's traditional enemy, were hunted down, only plunging the country further into chaos. Vietnam, whose border provinces had suffered bloody attacks, sponsored a resistance movement and invaded, ousting the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 and installing a client regime.

The U.N.-backed tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the regime's notorious S-21 prison, last July and sentencing him to 35 years in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses.

That case was seen as much simpler than the current case, which covers a much broader range of activities and because Kaing Guek Eav confessed to his crimes. Those going on trial Monday have steadfastly maintained their innocence. The prison chief was also far lower in the regime's leadership ranks than the current defendants.

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