SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) – The first trial on charges of genocide against Cambodia’s brutal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime opened Friday with a prosecutor saying it will show that Cambodians were enslaved in inhumane conditions that led to the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and execution.
Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the communist group’s late leader, Pol Pot, already received life sentences in August after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, relating mostly to the group’s forced movement of millions to the countryside when it took power in 1975. They have appealed their convictions.
The U.N.-backed tribunal split the cases into two trials for fear that Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, could die before any proceedings against them could be completed.
In addition to genocide against minorities, the second trial will address for the first time accusations of rape and forced marriages.
It will show that Cambodians at the cooperatives and work sites were “enslaved and subjected to inhumane conditions that led to countless deaths from starvation, overwork and disease,” Cambodian prosecutor Chea Leang told the court, as the two accused sat silently.
“We are here because of millions of Cambodian people who did not survive in this regime, for whom three years, eight months and 20 days … meant only suffering and grief, pain and deaths,” she said.
According to the genocide charges, Pol Pot and other senior leaders intended to wipe out members of the country’s Muslim Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities. Estimates of the number of Chams killed range from 90,000 to 500,000. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were forced into neighboring Vietnam, and virtually all of those remaining were executed.
Vann Math, head of the Cambodia Islamic Association, said that the Khmer Rouge fiercely persecuted the Cham, destroying mosques and killing people. He said many Chams are now avidly following the tribunal’s proceedings.
A Cham woman who attended a procedural hearing in July recalled the mortal danger of being a practicing Muslim under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, who sought to force them to abandon their religion.
“They killed many Muslim people,” survivor Simach Smam told The Associated Press. “They cooked pork and told us to eat it. If we didn’t eat it, we would be killed. They would also kill us if they saw us praying to Allah. I am so full of anger.”
Lyma Nguyen, a lawyer representing ethnic Vietnamese victims, said outside the hearing that the trial represents not only a rare chance to shed light on the genocide, but also on the lingering harm the mayhem has caused to survivors.
Those forced to flee retained no documentation proving their Cambodian origins, so when they returned they were plunged into statelessness, and remain targets of widespread discrimination and political scapegoats.
Bopha Om, a 59-year-old woman who lost members of her family in the genocide, said she was forced into marriage under threat of death.
“The Khmer Rouge tortured me. They forced me to dig my own grave. So I want to see them being prosecuted in court,” she said.