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 their "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. Virtually every Cambodian alive today lost family and many want to know why.
"I lost three children, my father and husband," said Som Hoeun, a 66-year old villager from the southern province of Kompong Speu as she queued up to get into the court.
She said it was worth the wait to see Pol Pot's top cadres brought to book: "No matter what how long it has been, I'm always hopeful there will be justice."
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.
The opening exchanges centred on Ieng Sary's move to have his case thrown out for double jeopardy. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a court created by Vietnamese invaders in 1979 and pardoned by Cambodia's then King Norodom Sihanouk in 1996.
"An individual cannot be tried twice for a crime that a court already acquitted or convicted him for," his lawyer, Ang Udom, said. "Bringing Ieng Sary to trial again is a violation."
The pardon for Ieng Sary came as part of a peace deal after he and his followers broke with the Khmer Rouge.
But co-prosecutor Chea Leang said his original trial, hastily arranged by Vietnam and held over five days, "was not a standard of justice." She said Ieng Sary was now indicted for different offences and should not try to evade justice.
Except for Khieu Samphan, none of the defendants have shown willingness to cooperate and there are concerns Cambodians will be deprived of 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 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, although material shown in 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.
He was later joined by Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who also cited health reasons. Their lawyers requested future proceedings be held over video link.
The court has 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. Prison chief Duch has appealed.
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 two former military commanders, has prompted resignations by court staff and outrage from rights groups complaining of interference by Cambodia's government and United Nations inaction.
Many Cambodians fear the old leftist leaders will not live long enough to be tried and 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 really 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 comfort survivors.
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.
Another villager queuing to get in to the court, Sem Hoen, said she lost four family members under the Khmer Rouge.
"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 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.
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."
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)