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Cambodia Approves Judges to Try Khmer Rouge Leaders

Cambodia has announced judges for the tribunal that is to try surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime accused of war crimes. The country's highest judicial body, headed by King Sihamoni, approved the list, which includes both Cambodian and international jurists.

Cambodian officials Thursday said the special court that is to try the surviving leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime will include 17 Cambodian legal experts as well as 13 jurists from Europe, North America and Asia.

A spokesman for the special court, Peter Foster, said that unlike other war crime tribunals, namely Rwanda's and Bosnia's, these proceedings will be held where the violations occurred, in Cambodia and under Cambodian law. And measures have been taken to ensure that they meet international standards of law.

"To ensure that these international standards are met, the Cambodians have asked that international prosecutors and international judges take place (participate) in the process and be a part of that from beginning to end," he said.

Foster says the proceedings are to begin in June. Under Cambodian law, which resembles French law, prosecuting judges will conduct an investigation lasting up to 18 months, followed by a trial sometime next year.

Up to a dozen senior Khmer Rouge leaders are expected to be tried.

The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia for four years in the late 1970s. During that time an estimated one-point-seven million people, or nearly one-fifth the population, died from starvation, forced labor, torture or execution.

The group's leader Pol Pot died eight years ago. Two of his senior deputies have been jailed for years, but others live freely in the country. Most are aging and in ill health, raising concerns that they might die before they can be tried.

Youk Chhang is the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which for years compiled documents on Khmer Rouge atrocities. He welcomes the tribunal and also approves of the individuals named to the special court.

"I can see people who have been trained abroad, people who are less political," he said. "I see people who are well educated. I see people who have been trained in international law, domestic law. So I think it's a good list."

Negotiations between the Cambodian government and the United Nations to convene the tribunal were difficult and took many years. However, the two sides eventually agreed on a process that respects Cambodian sovereignty and upholds international standards of law.

A funding shortage also delayed the tribunal's start, but $56 million eventually was raised for what is expected to be a three-year process.

Chhang acknowledges that many of the killers and torturers, witnesses and surviving victims have died. Nevertheless, he says the tribunal is important for their children and for the future of Cambodia.

"The trial will set a very solid foundation to build rule of law in Cambodia," he noted. "(It) will serve as a reference for the survivors to move on with their lives."

He also acknowledges that much remains to be done to address the legacy of the period, such as the emotional trauma that many Cambodians continue to experience today. However, he says the trial will legitimize the other processes needed to support the survivors and help the victims move beyond what happened them.