The joint trial of the four most senior surviving leaders of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime got under way today in Cambodia at the United Nations-backed tribunal set up to deal with the worst offences committed under the group’s reign.
Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are all facing charges of genocide, murder, torture, religious persecution and other war crimes and crimes against humanity over their alleged actions when the Khmer Rouge was in power between April 1975 and January 1979.
A five-judge panel at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), sitting in Phnom Penh, today began hearing preliminary arguments from lawyers for the four accused, who were arrested in 2007 and indicted by the tribunal last year.
At least 1.7 million Cambodians are estimated to have died from starvation, forced labour, torture and execution during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which was followed by a protracted period of civil war.
The indictment states that Mr. Nuon, 84, known as “Brother Number Two” under the Khmer Rouge, acted as chief policy architect of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, controlled the country’s internal security apparatus and rendered support for the regime’s policies of forcible relocation, enslavement and other inhumane acts.
Mr. Ieng, 84, served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under the Khmer Rouge. A former history professor, he fled to Thailand when the regime fell in 1979. His wife, Thirith, served as social affairs minister.
Khieu Samphan, 79, was a professor before serving as head of State of Democratic Kampuchea. He took over from Pol Pot when he retired as the official head of the Khmer Rouge in 1987.
All four have previously denied the allegations against them.
Between today and Thursday, the ECCC trial chamber is expected to hear arguments over statutory limitations and discuss witnesses for the first phases of the substantive hearing, which is expected to begin later this year.
The courtroom was filled with hundreds of Cambodians who came from across the country to observe the proceedings, known as Case 002, in person.
The ECCC was set up in 2006 and the UN provides assistance through the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT) and participates in the operations of the tribunal.