Cambodia to hear closing statements in KRouge trial

Cambodia's war crimes court will this week edge closer to delivering justice to Khmer Rouge victims as it begins hearing final statements in the much-delayed trial of former regime leaders.

Nearly four decades after the country's "Killing Fields" era, the UN-backed court will on Wednesday enter the last phase of the trial of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 87, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 82.

The trial is widely seen as a milestone in the still-traumatised nation's quest for justice, particularly given the ages of the frail suspects.

Another defendant, former foreign minister Ieng Sary died aged 87 in March this year, while the case against his wife Ieng Thirith -- also an ex-minister -- was suspended after the court ruled dementia left her unfit to stand trial.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the communist Khmer Rouge were responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out up to two million people through starvation, overwork and execution in the late 1970s.

"Victims have been waiting for more than 38 years to see some kind of justice.... this waiting period will soon end," court spokesman Lars Olsen told AFP.

Hundreds of Cambodians are expected to travel to the capital to attend the hearing of the closing statements, although interest in the trial has been muted among the wider public.

"The victims deserve to have a sense of closure," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches the regime's atrocities.

"While we move on, we should not forget the past. Genocide is part of our identity. It is us."

The final statements -- including by the defendants -- should be heard by the end of the month, while the court expects a verdict in the first half of 2014.

The court split the complex case into a series of smaller trials, amid fears that the ageing defendants will not survive.

Yet the first trial has still been dogged by delays caused by cash shortages, strikes, alleged political interference as well as the poor health of the accused.

Proceedings, which began hearing evidence in late 2011, have focused on the forced movement of people from Phnom Penh and related charges of crimes against humanity.

The evacuation of the once-bustling capital in April 1975 reduced the city to a ghost town in a matter of days in one of the largest forced migrations in modern history.

More than two million people were expelled at gunpoint and marched to labour camps in the countryside as part of the Khmer Rouge plan to forge an agrarian utopia.

"We are happy that the two Khmer Rouge leaders are being prosecuted. Although we are not going to receive full justice, the trial will serve as a model for the world," prominent Khmer Rouge survivor Bou Meng, 72, told AFP.

The case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan is the court's second trial and its most important so far.

Previously prosecutors have secured the conviction of a former prison chief, who was sentenced to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.

It comes at a critical time for the perennially cash-strapped tribunal which experienced another round of strikes over unpaid wages last month.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have denied charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide during the regime's 1975-1979 rule.

But Nuon Chea admitted for the first time in May that he felt some responsibility and remorse for the actions of his regime, while Khieu Samphan also offered a "sincere apology" to its victims.

The court is currently investigating two possible new cases -- strongly opposed by the government -- against several lower-ranking cadres.

But analysts believe a shortage of funds and political will may stymie any new proceedings.

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