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Khmer Rouge Trial Judge Defends Tribunal

A Cambodian man stands in front of human bones and skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge at a small shrine in Phnom Sampove, Battambang province, 314 kilometers (195 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh (file photo)

An international investigative judge overseeing the prosecution of war crimes suspects in Cambodia is defending the tribunal from critics who claim the court has failed to pursue a politically sensitive case against two former senior Khmer Rouge military officers. Judge Siegfried Blunk spoke to VOA’s Khmer Service in an exclusive interview Wednesday ahead of the expected start of the trial of the four most-senior survivors of the hard-line communist movement of the 1970s.

Blunk and fellow judge You Bunleng were criticized last month by international tribunal prosecutors and court monitors who allege that the two jurists closed a case against the military officers after a 20-month probe, without interviewing the suspects or visiting sites where atrocities were alleged to have taken place.

Blunk told VOA that the case, known as “Case 3,” has not been dismissed.

“The co-investigating judges also focused on the question of whether the suspects are among those most responsible for Khmer Rouge crimes. Because only for the most responsible, does the tribunal have jurisdiction,” Blunk said.

Blunk acknowledged that the investigating judges have preliminarily wrapped up their probe of Case 3, but said no final decision on whether to go forward has been reached. The chief prosecutor has submitted an appeal asking for further investigation, including the direct questioning of the suspects, but no ruling has been issued.

"According to the tribunal’s rules, there are many steps that must be taken before the investigating judges can make their final decision, which is called a closing order. Now, in Case 3, only the first of those many steps was taken," he said.

Blunk spoke just weeks before the expected trial of 79-year-old Khieu Samphan, the nominal head of state for Cambodia during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge rule; 84-year-old Nuon Chea, who is described as the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologue; and former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998.

Historians say that as many as 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation or other abuses under the Khmer Rouge.

Blunk said the trial of Khieu Samphan and his colleagues, known as Case 2, could take two years.

“This trial will be one of the largest and most complex in the history of international justice, if not the largest and the most complex. The investigating judges have admitted more than 2,000 civil parties to Case 2. A further 1,700 were recently added by the pre-trial chamber. So there is victim participation on a grand scale,” he said.

The judge also said his office is “vigorously investigating” Case 4, which centers on three more confidential suspects. He said the status of that case will also be determined in large part by whether the suspects are found to be among the most responsible for Khmer Rouge crimes.

Critics say their quest for justice is further complicated by the fact that the suspects in Cases 3 and 4 are unidentified, preventing civil plaintiffs from filing pleadings in the case.

The trial of the four principal defendants is the major event for the United Nations-backed tribunal, which was created to demonstrate impartial justice and foster national healing in the Southeast Asian nation.