Cambodians were bluntly reminded of their tragic history Monday as the trial began of three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating the "killing fields" in the late 1970s.
After Judge Nil Nonn declared the trial open, the prosecution started summarizing its case at the U.N.-backed tribunal _ more than three decades after the Southeast Asian country witnessed some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.
An estimated 1.7 million people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge's radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labor camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.
The defendants are old and infirm, and there are fears they won't live long enough for justice to be done.
On Monday, they sat side by side with their lawyers in the courtroom especially built for the tribunal, as the prosecutors began describing the scope of their alleged crimes.
Present were 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister.
All three steadfastly maintain they are innocent. They showed little reaction as a litany of charges was read out against them.
A fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer's disease. Ieng Sary's wife was the regime's minister for social affairs. She remains detained pending a court decision on prosecutors' appeal against her unconditional release.
The charges against the surviving inner circle of the communist movement include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Their leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades.
"This is the first (trial) of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for enacting a series of policies that led to the deaths of nearly 2 million people," said Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
"There is hope that it will help Cambodians understand why it happened, why Khmer killed Khmer, and will teach the younger generation to ensure it will never happen again," she said. Two-thirds of Cambodians today were not yet born when the communist group's reign of terror ended in 1979.
Prosecution statements continue Tuesday, to be followed by two days of response by the defense. Actual testimony is scheduled to begin on Dec. 5.
Meas Sery, 51, said he came to Monday's hearing from his home in Prey Veng province to see for himself the faces of the defendants. He said he lost four siblings under the Khmer Rouge regime.
"Even though there is no verdict be announced yet, I am happy to see these three leaders brought to the court. I believe that justice will come and I will receive it soon," Meas Srey said.
The trial's impact should go beyond Cambodia, said Clair Duffy of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been monitoring the tribunal's work.
Because it not only subjects the former leaders to the scrutiny of the law but also gives victims a forum to tell their stories, it has "a huge potential not only to contribute to justice in Cambodia, but also to contribute dialogue to ongoing efforts to bring perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities to justice around the world."
Chea Leang, Cambodian co-prosecutor, recalled for the court the brutalities of Khmer Rouge rule, beginning on April 17, 1975, when they captured Phnom Penh to end a bitter five-year civil war, and immediately began the forced evacuation to the countryside of the estimated 1 million people who had sheltered in the capital.
She recounted the new social order established by the group: an all-enveloping system of forced labor, with personal property banned, religion, press and all personal freedoms abolished. It was rule by terror.
Before the court adjourned for the day, Chea Leang insisted the evidence would show that the regime the defendants led "was one of the most brutal and horrific in modern history."
Some of those attending the trial provided their own vignettes of the terror.
Chim Phorn, 72, was chief of a commune under the Khmer Rouge regime in Banteay Meanchey province in the northwest. He said that in 1977, he killed a young couple who were in a romantic relationship without being married, a breach of rules. He said he beat the couple to death with an axe handle.
"I was ordered to kill the young couple because they fell in love without being married," Chhim Phorn said. "If I did not kill them, my supervisor would have killed me, so to save my life, I had no choice but to kill them."
Now, he said, he feel remorse and hates the Khmer Rouge leaders for what they made him do.
The tribunal has split the indictments according to charge into separate trials to speed the proceedings. The current trial is considering charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity.
Even streamlined, the proceedings are likely to cover an enormous amount of ground, and there is no estimate of how long they will take.
The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses. His sentence was reduced to a 19-year term due to time served and other technicalities.