Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal on Thursday indicted four former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the regime's most senior surviving member.
"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Khmer Rouge founder Pol Pot, will stand trial alongside former foreign minister Ieng Sary, social affairs minister Ieng Thirith and head of state Khieu Samphan.
The court has decided to "send forward these four accused for trial", judge You Bunleng said at a press conference, before listing a long series of charges against the former top regime members, including torture, murder and rape.
|A tourist takes pictures of skulls at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial near Phnom Penh in July 2010|
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist regime emptied the cities and abolished money and schools in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia, wiping out nearly a quarter of the country's population before they were ousted from the capital by Vietnamese forces.
The trial, expected in 2011, will be the court's second, following the sentencing of former prison chief Duch, real name Kaing Guek Eav, in July for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The 67-year-old was given a jail term of 30 years for his role overseeing the executions of an estimated 15,000 men, women and children, but could walk free in 19 years given time already served, to the dismay of survivors.
The four newly indicted leaders have been in detention since their arrests in 2007 in connection with the regime's bloody rule over Cambodia from 1975-79, when up to two million people died from starvation, overwork or execution.
The genocide charges relate specifically to the deaths of Vietnamese people and ethnic Cham Muslims under the regime.
Estimates for the number of Chams who died under the Khmer Rouge range from 100,000 to 400,000, but it is not known how many Vietnamese were killed.
The upcoming trial is expected to be a lengthy and complex one with all four of the former top Khmer Rouge figures disputing the charges against them.
However, in the 2009 documentary "Enemies of the People", Nuon Chea -- the movement's chief ideologue -- admits the regime killed so-called "traitors" if they could not be "re-educated" or "corrected".
"These people were categorised as criminals.... They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people," said Nuon Chea, now 84.
Ieng Sary, or "Brother Number Three", acted as the public face of the secretive regime. Since his arrest by the UN tribunal, the 84-year-old's health has deteriorated significantly.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, now 78, is the first woman to face charges by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Sometimes described as the "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge, she acted as social affairs minister and is held responsible by some researchers for the regime's drastic re-ordering of traditional Cambodian life.
She blames Nuon Chea for the crimes committed by the hardline communist government, and surprised the tribunal last year with a furious outburst in which she told members of the court that they would be "cursed to the seventh circle of hell."
The final defendant Khieu Samphan, 79, served as head of state and was one of the reclusive regime's few diplomats who had contact with the outside world.
The tribunal may be the last chance to find justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge, since many its top figures are now either dead or in ailing health.
The war crimes court opened in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between the UN and Cambodia, but it has been hit by allegations of political interference and corruption.
The court is investigating whether to open more cases against five other former Khmer Rouge cadres.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has already made it clear he is not in favour of pursuing more suspects from the regime, saying further trials could drive the country back to civil war.