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Khmer Rouge tribunal to tackle genocide charges

PHNOM PENH-- The slow course of justice for the leaders of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime will inch forward again Wednesday, as a U.N.-backed tribunal holds an initial hearing against a pair of defendants in their 80s facing genocide and other charges.

Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the group's late chief, Pol Pot, are among the few surviving top leaders of the brutal communist group that was responsible for some 1.7 million deaths from starvation, exhaustion, disease and execution when it was in power in 1975-79.

It will be the second case for the defendants, who have already been tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity related to forced evacuations and a mass execution, one of many massacres at sites around the country that came to be known as the “killing fields.” The verdict in that two-year trial is due next week. If found guilty, the two men could be put in prison for the rest of their lives.

The new trial brings additional charges of genocide, alleging that Pol Pot and other senior leaders intended to wipe out the members of the country's Vietnamese and Muslim Cham ethnic minorities. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were forced into Vietnam, and virtually all of those remaining were executed. Estimates of the number of Chams killed range from 90,000 to 500,000.

International deputy co-prosecutor William Smith said the team felt there was sufficient evidence to bring such cases.

“It's really significant because genocide is one of the most serious charges in international law,” Smith said.

In Wednesday's initial hearing, lawyers and judges will discuss which witnesses and experts will be called, the issue of requests for reparations, and procedural legal objections. The judges expect the actual trial to begin in the last quarter of this year, said Lars Olsen, a tribunal spokesman.

Lyma Nguyen, an international civil party lawyer representing ethnic Vietnamese victims, said the trial represents not only a rare chance to shed light on the suffering caused by the alleged genocidal policies, but also on the long-standing harm they have inflicted until this day.

Those forced to flee retained no documentation proving their Cambodian origins, so when they returned they were plunged into statelessness. Today, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese remain undocumented, living on the fringes of society without access to proper schooling, health care, jobs or social services.

The trial also marks the first time rape and forced marriage will be addressed by the court, as offenses considered crimes against humanity.

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In this March 20, 2012 photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, a former head of state for the Khmer Rouge, gestures as testimony is given during his trial at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. (AP)

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