A panel of Cambodian and U.N.-appointed judges has approved the ground rules for the prosecution of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the deaths of almost 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970's. The agreement opens the way for the long-awaited genocide trials to begin, three decades after the atrocities were committed. Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.
Final agreement on the rules governing the day-to-day running of the Khmer Rouge tribunal was reached during a two-week meeting of Cambodian and international judges. Wednesday's announcement ended almost 12 months of delay and rancor that had threatened to derail the entire process.
Disputes had arisen over a number of issues, including the role of victims in the tribunal, and whether foreign defense lawyers would be allowed. Helen Jarvis is the spokeswoman for the tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
"The whole thing really boiled down to the difficulty of the court having its foundation in Cambodian law, but the particular structure of the court is unique: we have co-investigating judges, co-prosecutors, we have a pre-trial chamber, we have a super-majority formula for decision-making by the judges," she said. "All these things are quite unique, so working out how the Cambodian law works in this particular structure, and then always ensuring that international standards were met, was extremely complicated."
Despite the agreement, some are warning that unforeseen legal obstacles may come back to haunt the tribunal.
Rupert Skilbeck, the head of the court's defense support section, says some of the new rules may not comply with international standards of fair trial. He says these concerns are likely to be raised by defense lawyers during the proceedings.
Helen Jarvis, however, says agreement on the new rules mean that the tribunal is now built on a solid foundation.
"Of course, we know that this is a complicated process, and I would never expect that there won't be obstacles, of course there will be obstacles," she added. "But we believe that with the adoption of the internal rules, unanimously, and after due consideration and long discussion among the judges, that this will form a very firm foundation for the court."
The tribunal is modeled on the legal system of France, which ruled Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos from the 1890's until 1954.
According to the system, the co-prosecutors are expected to file introductory statements within a few weeks. At that point, the trial process will move to the judicial-investigation phase, in which the investigating judges will begin a review of the evidence gathered so far.
The first defendant is not expected to appear before a judge before early 2008.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal was officially established last year, almost a decade after negotiations between the Cambodian government and the United Nations first begun. The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist movement, took power in Cambodia in 1975, and was driven out in 1979.