Cambodia set for landmark verdict on Khmer Rouge chiefs

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PHNOM PENH: Two former Khmer Rouge leaders face a verdict Thursday over allegations of crimes against humanity at Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal, the first time rulers of the murderous regime will be judged in a court.

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Prosecutors are seeking life jail terms for “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan — the most senior surviving ex-Khmer Rouge officials — accused of playing key roles in a regime which left up to two million people dead during the “Killing Fields” era from 1975-1979.

Nuon Chea, 88, wearing his trademark sunglasses, sat in a wheelchair in the dock next to Khieu Samphan, 83, as proceedings got underway.

The verdict follows a two-year trial which focused on the role the ex-leaders played in a period of forced evacuation and related crimes against humanity.

A few dozen survivors of the “Killing Fields” era, many travelling from far-flung rural provinces, arrived early to join some 900 Cambodians at the Phnom Penh-based court.

“I have been waiting for justice since 1979… This is a very important day for me,” said Yann Sok, 76, who lost 20 relatives including two of his sons under the regime.

The verdict — and possible sentences — are expected at around 10:30 am (0330 GMT).

The judgement is also being broadcast live on television and radio in a nation still haunted by the communist regime which wiped out of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to create a communist agrarian utopia.

Yim Sovann, 54, was among two million Cambodians expelled from the capital into labour camps in 1975 — one of the largest forced migrations in modern history.

Like many survivors of the brutal regime, she lost several family members — her father was executed, while her younger sister disappeared after soldiers accused her of stealing a handful of rice.

“I don’t want revenge. But I beg them to answer who else was involved… to say who ordered what, who is behind the killings,” she told AFP.

These questions may never be resolved — both defendants have insisted they were unaware of the crimes committed under their rule.

In October last year Nuon Chea expressed his “deepest remorse” for those who suffered, echoing an earlier “sincere apology” from Khieu Samphan, who said he did not know about the regime’s crimes at the time.

“The verdict will not totally heal the victims’ moral wounds, but they will be eased to some degree,” court co-prosecutor Chea Leang told AFP.

Many observers and victims fear the ageing Khmer Rouge leaders may not survive to serve any jail time if they are found guilty.

Former foreign minister Ieng Sary died aged 87 last year while still on trial. His wife Ieng Thirith was released in 2012 after being ruled unfit for trial due to poor health.

Last week, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan began their second trial at the court on charges including genocide of Vietnamese people and ethnic Muslims, forced marriages and rape.

The complex case against them was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 for reasons including their advanced age and the large number of accusations.

Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society with regime atrocities affecting virtually every family in Cambodia.

In its breakthrough first trial, the court in 2010 sentenced former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to 30 years in prison — later increased to life on appeal — for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people. AFP

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