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Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Tribunal Threatened By Funding Crisis

There are growing concerns that a lack of funds could threaten the future of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal, just months before the first trials are expected to begin. The burgeoning costs of the joint United Nations/Cambodian court have not been met with fresh funds from donor countries, which means that the long-awaited tribunal will run out of money by the end of April. Court officials however, are hopeful that the international community will come up with the millions of dollars needed to keep the court running. Rory Byrne reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

Like a slow burning fuse, the threat to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Tribunal has been building for months. The projected cost of the court has more than tripled from $56.3 million to about $170 million. At the same time, concerns about alleged mismanagement and corruption at the court have left donor countries slow to donate more money.

Helen Jarvis is a spokeswoman for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

"We are really down to a pretty tight situation because on the Cambodian side we expect the funds to run out at the end of April - on the international side some months later," she said. "And indeed, even when the Cambodian funds run out we can't expect that the court would operate only with international staff. After all we are a mixed-court, and in the courts of Cambodia we really need both sides. As our director says: a bird needs two wings to fly, and that certainly applies to us."

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal has struggled to raise donor funds from the beginning mainly because of concerns about political interference in the trials.

Some leading members of the current Cambodian government, including the prime minister Hun Sen, are themselves former Khmer Rouge members. However, Reach Sambath, the press officer for the tribunal, says the Cambodian government deserves credit for supporting the trials.

"In the beginning, they got bullets of accusations saying that [the] Cambodian side had no commitment to let this court move forward because many of them were former Khmer Rouge, but on the contrary, within four months the five suspects were brought to the court, and that is why we have to express our satisfaction with the commitment of the Cambodian side of the court," he said.

The funding shortfall comes at the same time as the projected cost of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has skyrocketed.

According to court officials, the trials are now expected to take about five years - not the three years allocated for in the original budget.

Plus the tribunal belatedly set up a Victims Unit to allow thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge to take part in the trials as civil parties. The cost of gathering and processing evidence from the large number of potential plaintiffs is expected to run into the millions of dollars.

In addition, the expansion of the role of the pre-trial chamber to include pre-trial appeals, plus the cost of translating thousands of documents into English, French and Khmer have worsened the court's money woes.

Evidence of the tribunal's predicament came last week, when the Cambodian side of the court told its 200-plus staff that they would not be paid beyond April.

To prevent the court from closing, court officials are urgently appealing to donors to pledge more money. Press Officer Reach Sambath.

"I think funds should be provided as urgently as possible because otherwise we don't want - and the Cambodian people - none of them want to see the defendants get free," Sambath said. "Because they waited for this chance [for] thirty years and now we don't want to see they are suffering more because there would be no budget and the court is going to close."

Almost two million people died under the Khmer Rouge's brutal 1975-1979 rule. Prosecuting those deemed 'most responsible' has taken decades.

For court officials, and for many Cambodians, the thought that the trials could collapse at this stage from a lack of funds is unimaginable. Court spokeswoman Helen Jarvis.

"We really can't imagine that we would close our doors in a month from now - I don't think anyone is really entertaining this possibility," Jarvis said. "I think it has been recognized that we have made substantial achievements, and our work is too important to just let go at this point."

Donor countries, known as the Group of Interested States, are scheduled to meet in New York on March 27. Court officials are hopeful that fresh funds will be pledged at that meeting, or shortly after.