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30 Years After the Khmer Rouge, Justice in Cambodia Still Illusive

Thirty years after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime came to power in Cambodia, the clamor for justice for its four-year genocidal rule remains as strong as ever. But time is running out. A proposed United Nations court to try the group's leaders for the deaths of two million people has faced repeated delays.

Within days of capturing the capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975, the radical communist Khmer Rouge emptied cities and forced people to work in farms in an attempt to establish what they called an agrarian utopia. Instead, in the four years that followed, the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into what became known as the "killing fields."

Property was confiscated, schools were closed, religious practices were banned and even eating was collectivized.

Close to two million Cambodians died from disease, starvation, forced labor, torture and executions.

But 30 years on, justice for the victims has yet to be served. A proposed United Nations genocide court to try Khmer Rouge leaders has long been delayed - caught up in funding shortfalls, the slow passage of a Cambodian law authorizing the tribunal and arguments over which law would apply and who would sit as judges.

Analysts say Cambodia is running out of time because the top Khmer Rouge leaders may be too old and sick to stand trial. Its top leader Pol Pot died in 1998. Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's right hand man, is partly paralyzed and Duch, who allegedly supervised the torture of thousands at Tuol Sleng prison, was recently hospitalized.

Sok Sam Oeun is director of the independent legal group called, Cambodian Defenders Project, which has been pushing for the tribunal. Mr. Sok says the trials mean more than simply seeking redress for the victims. "It is very important to give a warning to the [country's] leader, especially the future Cambodian leader, to know that they cannot escape from justice," he says.

Mr. Sok also says he fears that without a tribunal, Cambodians born after 1979 may easily forget the mistakes of the past. "No one can imagine how serious (situation during) the Khmer Rouge. It's not human you know. Reasonable people do not think that something like that
happened. That's why it is very hard to make those young people believe. Maybe they think their parents maybe distort information like that," he says.

Some Cambodian officials say the court could open this year if the funding issue is solved. Impoverished Cambodia cannot afford the tens of millions of dollars needed to run the court. Japan, Australia, and European countries have pledged to help shoulder the budget.

Cambodians are seeking closure. A majority of Cambodians surveyed last year by the local policy group, Khmer Institute of Democracy, says they still think about their experience under the Khmer Rouge. An overwhelming 97 percent said they want to see Khmer Rouge leaders put on trial.

The Khmer Rouge's reign of terror ended in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia. By then, Pol Pot had purged much of the senior leadership leaving the Khmer Rouge weak and devoid of support. Many Khmer Rouge cadres surrendered, including current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.