Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Wednesday, 23 April 2008 08:33 UK

Khmer Rouge leader seeks release

Khieu Samphan is helped to the dock for a hearing Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Khieu Samphan, detained in November, is accused of war crimes

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan has made his first appearance at Cambodia's genocide tribunal.

He is seeking to be released from detention while waiting for the start of his trial, which is expected to take place later this year.

Khieu Samphan was arrested in November on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, and is blamed for up to two million deaths.

Khieu Samphan has never denied these deaths, but both he and his lawyers insist that, as head of state, he was never directly responsible.

One member of his defence team is the infamous French lawyer Jacques Verges, whose previous clients have included Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Venezuelan hijacker Carlos the Jackal.

Mr Verges, 83, has known Khieu Samphan, 76, since they were both involved in left-wing student activities in France in the 1950s.

Life of poverty

The defendant listened stony-faced as judge Prak Kimsan read out the case against him.

Maoist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979
Founded and led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998
Abolished religion, schools and currency in a bid to create agrarian utopia
Up to two million people thought to have died from starvation, overwork or execution

He confirmed his name, age and home town, and told the court he had lived a life of poverty after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled.

"I have had no job since leaving the jungle. (I have) only my wife, who struggles to feed me and my family," he is reported as saying.

In its detention order, the prosecution alleged that Khieu Samphan "aided and abetted" the policies of the Khmer Rouge, which were "characterised by murder, extermination, imprisonment, persecution on political grounds and other inhumane acts".

Khieu Samphan's defence lawyers argued that he held "no real power" and was therefore not guilty of the crimes he was charged with, according to documents read out by Judge Prak Kimsan.

The court then went into a closed-door session.

French lawyer Jacques Verges (file pic)
Khieu Samphan is being defended by the contoversial Jacques Verges

The long-delayed UN-backed genocide tribunal is expected to hold its first trial later this year.

Those also facing charges include Nuon Chea, second-in-command of the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot; the former foreign and social affairs ministers, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith; and Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng jail in Phnom Penh.

Under the Khmer Rouge, more than one million people died from starvation or overwork as leaders strove to create an agrarian utopia.

Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centres.

Khmer Rouge founder Pol Pot died in 1998, and many fear that delays to the judicial process could mean that the Khmer Rouge's surviving leaders could die before being brought to justice.

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