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Legal Experts Worry Ailing Former Khmer Rouge Could Kill Cambodia's Hope for Justice

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A former prison warden who presided over the murders of thousands of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime has been hospitalized in the nation's capital. Legal experts are concerned many of the aging leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge government could die before Cambodians bring them to justice.

Comrade Duch, the former commander of the Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng prison, supervised the torture and murder of more than 14,000 Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The victims who died under his watch were only a portion of the more than one million Cambodians who were murdered or died from forced labor or starvation during the Khmer Rouge's government.

Twenty six years later, in a Phnom Penh military hospital, Comrade Duch this week is receiving treatment for a swollen prostate gland under the supervision of armed guards. His lawyer says the 63-year-old was admitted last week in serious condition and may need surgery.

Comrade Duch, whose real name is Kaing Khek Iev is expected to be a key witness in trials for the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Cambodia ratified an agreement with the United Nations last October to set up the tribunal, but as yet, has not been able to come up with the $56 million needed to do so.

Lao Mong Hay, the head of the legal unit at the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh, says funds must be found as soon as possible. If the tribunal does not begin soon, he warns, former Khmer Rouge leaders will die and take evidence of their crimes with them.

"If Duch were to fall very much ill and not to be able to stand the trial, or if he were to disappear to die, then the rationale, the reason behind the holding of the hearing, the trial, would be very much questionable," said Lao Mong Hay. "Because in his absence, we could not find enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the rest of the Khmer Rouge leaders."

Some money has been pledged by the Cambodian government, Japan and Australia, but as yet has not arrived. The United Nations is seeking funds from other nations.

After leaving the hospital, Comrade Duch will return to military prison, where he has been in solitary confinement since 1999. Of the five other surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, one is in jail. The rest live freely among the victims of the extreme Maoist group's genocidal reign.

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