Nuon Paet, 53, denies murdering the backpackers, Briton Mark Slater, Frenchman Jean-Michael Braquet and Australian David Wilson.
With presiding judge Ms Boninh Bunnary yet to hear a word of testimony, the trial has already been slammed as a sham by relatives of the victims and UN observers. The prosecution's case has been prepared very quickly with the aim of serving up Nuon Paet as a scapegoat, observers say.
Lawyers representing the families have been cautioned not to ask "embarrassing questions", and claim they have had very little support from the embassies of their clients.
Dorothy Slater, the mother of Mark Slater, has flown to the Cambodian capital to face the alleged murderer in court. She decided to go after receiving a letter from the accused pleading his innocence. The judge is expected to conclude the case quickly as the Cambodian government does not want embarrassing questions asked about the role of senior army officers in the botched attempt to rescue the backpackers.
Two senior officers, General Sam Bith and Lt Col Chhuk Rinn, accused by Nuon Paet of ordering the killings, have ignored summonses to attend. A key witness has gone into hiding following death threats and will not be available to give testimony.
Nuon Paet allegedly ordered the execution of the three tourists after they were kidnapped during a bloody ambush on a train by Khmer Rouge troops in July 1994. The rebels blasted the train with grenade launchers and shot at least 13 passengers dead before marching over 200 captives away.
The Cambodian prisoners were later released but the three Westerners were taken to a mountain stronghold south of Phnom Penh, where they were put to work. An attempt to pay a $150,000 ransom demand was botched. Two months after their capture the backpackers were shot. Their bodies were later found in a shallow grave.
There are dozens of UN and embassy observers in Phnom Penh for the trial. Their first taste of Cambodian-style justice will set the stage for the expected trial later this year of the notorious military chief of the Khmers, Ta Mok. So far, there has not been much enthusiasm among the Cambodian government to bring other top Khmer leaders to trial.
But the government is taking no chances that the first alleged Khmer Rouge murderer to come to trial since the bloody revolution of the 1970s could be shot by Cambodians seeking revenge or Communist fanatics regarding their former commander as a traitor.
Armed guards wielding M16s and AK-47s have sealed off the tiny court building, which resembles a fortress.Reuse content