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Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Trials Under Threat


Concern is mounting in Cambodia that the long-awaited trials of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge could be derailed due to a dispute over international legal standards. A panel of Cambodian and United Nations court officials recently failed to resolve their differences over the rules governing the operation of the trials. And a United Nations plan to audit the funds used for the tribunal could further complicate matters. Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.

It has been almost 10 years since Cambodia and the United Nations began preparing to try the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge but no one has yet appeared before a judge.

The ultra-Maoist group ruled Cambodia and killed almost two million people in the late 1970s. Its surviving leaders are now old and frail and many people fear that they will die before facing justice.

The Cambodian government blames the delay in opening an international tribunal on what it calls "issues of procedure". For several years, the government and the United Nations have debated what legal procedures to follow.

Spokeswoman for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Helen Jarvis, said, "I think it is a really complex operation to harmonize Cambodian law and procedure with international standards and at the same time also to harmonize the work of people from 11 different countries and different legal systems. Perhaps I think in retrospect we can say we were overly optimistic that this operation could be done more quickly."

One area of dispute: many Cambodian judges do not want foreigners serving as defense attorneys.

The U.N. also is concerned about Cambodia's insistence that domestic law take precedence over international law during the tribunal.

Cambodian judges will hold the majority in the tribunal panels but many Cambodians and outside legal experts consider the country's judiciary hopelessly corrupt.

Concerns about corruption are so severe that this week the U.N. Development Program said it is auditing the tribunal's finances because of questions about hiring procedures. There have been allegations from aid organizations that Cambodians had to bribe government officials to get jobs with the tribunal.

It took several years to find donors to fund the tribunal - another factor in the delay. A few years ago Japan, France, Germany, Britain, Australia, India and the European Union pledged to cover most of the costs, estimated to be $59 million over three years.

The United Nations is wary of associating itself with a trial that falls short of international legal standards.

The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, says his government is withholding support for the trials for now.

"I always say that the only thing worse than no trial at all would be a trial that's a farce," he said. "We are still assessing whether we can directly support, and we have not reached the conclusion we can do that yet because frankly we are not yet completely convinced that the trial will meet international standards."

Some human rights activists say the real reason for the delay is that the Cambodian government includes many former Khmer Rouge members.

Lawyer Theary Seng is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era and heads Cambodia's Center for Social Development.

"We know that this Cambodian government never truly genuinely wanted a Khmer Rouge tribunal because many of the current government officials were former Khmer Rouge soldiers," Seng said. "They could be implicated in a way that could tarnish their reputation and their history."

Among them are Prime Minister Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, a senior leader of the ruling Cambodian People's Party. Both were in the Khmer Rouge as very young adults, and both later took part in a Vietnamese invasion that toppled the Maoist government. However, the prime minister has endorsed holding the tribunal.

There had been hope that the tribunal would start investigating cases and filing charges this year, but that may not happen. In March, a rules committee will meet to try to resolve the procedural differences.

If there is an agreement, then the Cambodian National Assembly must vote to approve it, probably in April, before proceedings can begin. That means, lawyers and tribunal staff members say, it will be 2008 before hearings begin.

However, political analysts, some U.N. staff and even some judges privately say that if no agreement is reached, there is a danger that the United Nations might abandon the effort entirely.

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