PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's trial of the Khmer Rouge's two surviving leaders began hearing closing statements Wednesday, with pleas for belated justice almost 40 years after the brutal regime destroyed a generation of Cambodian people.
Now ailing and elderly, Nuon Chea, 87, the regime's chief ideologist, and Khieu Samphan, 82, its head of state, are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity — including torture, enslavement and murder — for planning and implementing the policies that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.
Initial statements on Wednesday came from the lawyers of "civil parties" participating in the trial to represent the victims. Statements from the prosecution and defense are scheduled through the end of October, and a verdict is expected in the first half of 2014.
Hundreds of victims who lost their loved ones during the regime's 1970s rule packed the tribunal's courtroom and crowded outside.
"I need to see justice," said Prak Sri, a 66-year-old who traveled from the southern province of Takeo. "I want to see this court punish these Khmer Rouge leaders because 11 of my relatives were killed."
Death and disability have robbed the tribunal of other defendants. Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the regime's social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial in September 2012 after being diagnosed with dementia. The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Just 20 minutes into Wednesday's hearing, Nuon Chea told the court he felt ill.
"I feel dizzy. May I leave?" the man known as Brother No. 2 told the court. He was escorted out in a wheelchair, taken to a holding cell to watch the proceedings via video link.
The Khmer Rouge, in power from April 1975 until January 1979, emptied the country's cities, forcing Cambodians into backbreaking work in rural collectives and executing any it suspected of dissent.
Torture and death by starvation, lack of medical care, overwork and execution were endemic under the Khmer Rouge
Civil party lawyers recounted testimony of mothers who watched their babies die due to lack of food and medicine and families forcibly marched at gunpoint across the countryside.
"Forced transfers involved the complete emptying of towns and cities," said civil party lawyer, Hong Kim Suon. "There was usually no food, water, shelter or medical care," he said. "The consequences of the forced transfers ... resulted in famine, disease and death."
Surviving victims hope that "after more than 30 years their right to justice and reparations will be realized," said another civil party lawyer, Pich Ang.
The tribunal, launched in 2006, so far has convicted only one defendant, Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. Cambodia has no death penalty. His case was known as 001.
The current trial, Case 002, against senior leaders of the regime opened in November 2011 and has included 212 days of testimony from 92 individuals.
To make a massive indictment more manageable, the court decided to split Case 002 into smaller "mini trials" that would examine the evidence in rough chronological order. It was feared that the aging, infirm defendants might not survive long enough to complete more comprehensive proceedings, depriving victims of even a modicum of justice.
The present trial's focus on the forced movement of people excludes some of the gravest charges related to genocide, detention centers and killings. The tribunal has ruled that the next trial, on genocide and other charges, will begin as soon as possible but tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said no schedule had been set.
Proceedings have been hampered by underfunding, and obstruction by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who counts surrendered Khmer Rouge leaders among his political allies. He himself defected from the group at an early stage.
"Funding and problems of judicial interference may prevent future cases from moving forward," the tribunal said in a statement Wednesday. The current trial "may be the last opportunity for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime to see justice."