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Opening statements in the United Nations-backed trial of Khmer Rouge leaders began today with a detailed account of the atrocities of a regime responsible for the deaths of one-fourth of Cambodia’s population. Though the accusations were familiar, their presentation in a coherent narrative, studded with examples, was powerful and caused some Cambodians to shed tears.
The three defendants, former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, listened as a prosecutor, Chea Leang, accused them of turning the country into “a massive slave camp producing an entire nation of prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief.”
This trial, involving a roster of witnesses, is the centerpiece of the prosecution of leading figures in the Khmer Rouge under a U.N.-Cambodian tribunal established in 2003.
The defendants include Nuon Chea, the party’s chief ideologue, who received reports and gave directions as to “who would be arrested and who would be killed.” One witness who will testify to receiving these instructions is Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the commandant of the movement’s main prison, who was sentenced in July 2010 to thirty-five years in jail, later commuted to nineteen.
A second defendant is Ieng Sary, the foreign minister, who recalled Cambodian diplomats from embassies abroad and ordered their arrests and executions. Mr. Ieng said at one point, “I am very regretful for the deaths of the intellectuals because I was the one who gathered them to come home and help build the country.”
The third defendant is Khieu Samphan, the head of state, whom Mr. Cayley accused of having knowledge and involvement in the Khmer Rouge crimes despite his claims to have been unaware of the atrocities around him.
The defendants, visibly aged since they were arrested in 2007, mostly appeared to be following the hearing: Mr. Nuon wearing the dark glasses that have become his trademark; Mr. Khieu looking intently, sometimes with his chin in his hands; and Mr. Ieng, who seemed alternately to listen and doze.
At one point, Mr. Ieng tried to rise from his seat and leave the courtroom, but a guard prevented him. Mr. Ieng has said that he would not take part in the trial.
In a daylong presentation, Ms. Chea, the co-prosecutor, asserted that the atrocities were part of an “organized and systematic” system with a “high level of integration” that kept the defendants constantly informed of the actions of their subordinates at all levels. “These crimes were committed in accordance with the Communist Party center,” she said. “The accused participated in the giving of these orders or were fully aware of the crimes. They failed to act in their capacity as superiors to prevent the crimes or to punish the perpetrators.”
Her statements and those of Mr. Cayley emphasized a crucial accusation, that the defendants were engaged in a “joint criminal enterprise” in which they had knowledge of and supported the implementation of a common criminal plan.
“None of the accused here ever soiled his hands with blood,” Mr. Cayley said, “but all set in motion a series of policies which unleashed an ocean of blood.”
The three men are charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
Mr. Cayley broke down the accusations into five categories. Among these are the forced evacuation of two million residents from Phnom Penh; enslavement of people in work sites and agricultural cooperatives where many died of overwork; and use of violence to eliminate perceived enemies through a nationwide network of 200 re-education and security offices like Tuol Sleng, the main Khmer Rouge prison.
The prosecutors will focus on the targeting of ethnic Cham and Vietnamese and the crushing of the Buddhist religion, which are the bases for the charge of genocide, and the practice of forced marriage, involving rape and the abuse of women.
“These were not unauthorized, random crimes,” Ms. Chea Leang said. “The Khmer Rouge leadership, which included the three defendants, was kept constantly informed by periodic reports,” she said, and were “often directly involved in purges.”