PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The first trial weighing charges of genocide against Cambodia's brutal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime opened Friday with a prosecutor saying it will show that Cambodians were enslaved in inhumane conditions that led to the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and execution.
Khieu Samphan, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the communist group's late leader, Pol Pot, already received life sentences in August after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, relating mostly to forced movement of millions to the countryside when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
They have appealed their convictions, and in brief statements to the court on Friday called for postponing further trial sessions. Nuon Chea said the court should wait for a ruling on his plea that four judges should be dismissed for alleged bias, and Khieu Samphan said it was unfair to proceed while his defense team was still working on appealing the verdict in his first trial. They threatened to boycott further proceedings.
The U.N.-backed tribunal split the cases into two trials for fear that Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, could die before any proceedings against them could be completed.
In addition to genocide against minorities, the second trial will address for the first time accusations of rape and forced marriages.
It will show that Cambodians at the giant cooperatives and work sites established by the Khmer Rouge were "enslaved and subjected to inhumane conditions that led to countless deaths from starvation, overwork and disease," Cambodian prosecutor Chea Leang told the court, as the two accused sat silently.
"We are here because of millions of Cambodian people who did not survive in this regime, for whom three years, eight months and 20 days ... meant only suffering and grief, pain and deaths," she said.
According to the genocide charges, Pol Pot and other senior leaders intended to wipe out members of the country's Muslim Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities. Estimates of the number of Chams killed range from 90,000 to 500,000. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were forced into neighboring Vietnam, and virtually all of those remaining were executed.
Vann Math, head of the Cambodia Islamic Association, said that the Khmer Rouge fiercely persecuted the Cham, destroying mosques and killing people. He said many Chams are now avidly following the tribunal's proceedings.
After years of legal and political wrangling, the Khmer Rouge tribunal was established in 2006, but has been plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and financial woes. The hybrid structure of the court, in which U.N.-appointed international judges and lawyers share duties with Cambodian counterparts, has led to allegations of political interference and repeated deadlocks.
"Quintessential Khmer Rouge crimes have yet to be addressed, including the cooperatives and massive work sites where hundreds of thousands of people died of overwork, starvation, and targeted killing. These are crimes that defined the experience of many survivors and still traumatize them today," Anne Heindel, the author of a book about the tribunal told The Associated Press. "Due to the unlikelihood that anyone else will be prosecuted for Khmer Rouge-era crimes, donors want the second leadership trial to be completed so that the millions of dollars they've expended thus far result in more than a narrow legacy of only three convicted and a few crime sites discussed, and they can anoint the court as a triumph for international and Cambodian justice."
In its first trial, the tribunal sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch," the director of the notorious S-21 torture center, to life imprisonment. The second trial, in which Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were convicted, opened in November 2011, but death and disability winnowed the number of defendants.
Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died last year, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the regime's social affairs minister, was declared unfit for trial because of dementia. Pol Pot died in 1998.
"We want justice, and this justice is not even for us who have survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, but it is for our children and many generations to come. This justice would help to prevent genocide to happen again here and elsewhere," said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has collected more than a million documents related to the Khmer Rouge terror.