By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The four most senior surviving members of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime went on trial for war crimes on Monday, three decades after its "year zero" revolution marked one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
The defendants, all now elderly and infirm, were among the inner circle of the late Pol Pot, the French-educated architect of the Khmer Rouge's ultra-Maoist "Killing Fields" revolution that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975-1979.
Dressed in casual clothes, "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former President Khieu Samphan, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, a former social affairs minister, showed no emotion as opening statements to the U.N.-backed tribunal were read before a packed auditorium in proceedings screened on national television.
Almost a quarter of Cambodia's population were wiped out under the Khmer Rouge through torture, execution, starvation and exhaustion.
The four are charged with committing crimes against humanity and genocide and accused of a litany of crimes under both international and Cambodian laws, including murder, enslavement, religious and political persecution, inhumane treatment and unlawful imprisonment.
All four defendants are expected to enter not guilty pleas. "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Except for Khieu Samphan, none have shown willingness to cooperate with the court and there are concerns that Cambodians will be denied the chance to hear first-hand accounts of the motivation and ideology that fueled an unrelenting killing spree by one of the world's most enigmatic regimes.
The closest any of the former cadres have come to disclosure is seen in an award-winning documentary film yet to be released in Cambodia entitled "Enemies of the People," in which Nuon Chea, during six years of recorded interviews with a the journalist, admitted those seen as threats to the party line were "corrected" at the behest of the regime.
The filmmakers have said they would not hand over tapes if asked by the court, but judges say material from the film can be used by prosecutors once in the public domain.
Wearing dark sunglasses, a ski hat and sweatshirt, Nuon Chea, 84, complained he was in poor health and was too cold and left the courtroom moments after the proceedings began.
"I'm ready to come back when the court discusses my requests," he said.
The case is a crucial test of whether the multi-million dollar Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid international-led tribunal created in 2005, can deliver justice.
Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the start of the second case was a "cathartic moment" that he hoped would help bring some closure.
The crimes "remain ingrained in Cambodia's collective psyche. I hope that this trial ... provides all victims with some sense of justice, however delayed that justice may be," Ou Virak said in a statement.
Sentences handed down by the tribunal can range from a minimum five years to a maximum of life in prison. There is no death penalty in Cambodia.
Sem Hoen, who lost four family members at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, queued for several hours for a seat in the courtroom. She said all he wanted was an explanation as to why so many people were killed indiscriminately.
"I want them to confess. People won't stay calm if they don't say what happened," she said. "Justice is very important."
But justice might continue to elude Cambodia. Cases have moved at a snail's pace in the ECCC its processes are extremely bureaucratic. The defendants are old and in poor health and some might die before a verdict is delivered by the ECCC, which estimates its spending will reach $150 million by year-end.
The court has so far handed down just one sentence, a 35-year jail term, commuted to 19 years, for Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, over the deaths of more than 14,000 people at the notorious S-21 prison. Duch has appealed against the ruling.
His sentence was seen by many Cambodians as too lenient and an unexplained decision this month by judges not to pursue a third case, believed to involve former military commanders, has prompted resignations by court staff and outrage from rights groups complaining of political interference by Cambodia's government and United Nations inaction .
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rogue cadre, has shown his disdain for the court and last year told U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon that further indictments were "not allowed."
This week's opening proceedings are expected to be dominated by moves from Ieng Sary's lawyers to have charges against him dropped on the grounds that he was sentenced to death by a court created by Vietnamese invaders in 1979 and pardoned by Cambodia's then King Norodom Sihanouk 17 years later.
The pardon for Ieng Sary, a reclusive guerilla leader, came as part of a peace deal between warring factions in Cambodia, but prosecutors are expected to argue the pardon was for the death sentence, not the charges he currently faces.
Som Hoeun, a 66-year old villager from southern Kompong Speu province, said it was worth the wait to see Pol Pot's top cadres brought to book.
"I lost three children, my father and husband. No matter what how long it has been, I'm always hopeful there will be justice," she said.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alex Richardson)