A cell in Toul Sleng, the prison in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured thousands before killing them
As a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in the capital reconvened this week to hear testimony from former top officials of the Khmer Rouge, Catholics in the capital welcomed the opportunity for justice and forgiveness after more than 30 years of waiting. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia sat in a four-day session starting November 21 to hear opening statements in its prosecution of three former top leaders of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge. Nuon Chea, 85, the chief ideologue and “Brother Number Two” of the KR, Khieu Samphan, 80, former head of state, and Ieng Sary, 86, former defense minister, face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, former social affairs minister, was deemed mentally ill and thus unfit to stand trial by the court. Father Un Son, a priest serving in Kampot province, said the trial was instructive not only for survivors but for all Cambodians. “The trial is the right thing to do, to show that justice must take place and as a lesson for the future, that no regime should ever repeat what the Khmer Rouge has done.” The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975 and began a reign of terror that saw the death from murder, torture, starvation and illness of an estimated 1.7 million people before they were overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979. “I suffered from starvation and lost two members of my family during the Khmer Rouge rule. I expect the court will arrive at a suitable sentence,” said Fr Un Son. Pen Ra, a Catholic lawyer and businessman, said the trial was important for the sake of the victims’ peace of mind but noted that the process towards justice has been long and expensive. “A lot of money and time is being spent on the trial. I hope these resources are used efficiently and the case will come to a conclusion soon.” Phan Bora, president of the St Vincent de Paul Society, said the trial also serves as reminder of the need for forgiveness. “As a Catholic, I forgive them in my heart and I encourage everyone to do so. We cannot be angry forever.” All three defendants claim to be innocent of the charges against them, with Khieu Samphan dismissing the catalogue of crimes listed by the court this week as “fairytales” during his testimony yesterday. Ieng Sary had to be ordered yesterday to read his statement by the judges and then said he refused to answer any future questions. At that point the court adjourned until December 5. This is the second case brought before the expensively-assembled Extraordinary Chambers. In the tribunal’s first case last year, Kheng Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was sentenced to 35 years in prison – commuted to 19 years – for crimes committed as commandant of the Tual Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh, where about 16,000 victims were tortured before being sent to their deaths in the “killing fields” outside the capital. His appeal is due to be heard in February.