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Khmer Rouge tribunal ends pretrial proceedings

world Updated: Feb 18, 2009 15:36 IST
Khmer Rouge tribunal ends pretrial proceedings

A long-delayed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal wrapped up its opening session on Wednesday with judges saying they still need to finalize a list of witnesses before announcing when a full trial of the former head of the regime's notorious torture center will begin.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch is charged with crimes against humanity. He is the first of five defendants from the close-knit, ultra-communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and turned it into a vast slave labor camp in which an estimated 1.7 million people perished.

Three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the UN-assisted tribunal began a procedural session on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a full trial expected in March. The precise date has not been set and details still need to be ironed out, including who will testify.

Judge Silvia Cartwright, a former New Zealand High Court judge, told the court that the tribunal's five judges met on Wednesday in private to pare down the lists of proposed witnesses to "consider whether the testimony would be redundant or repetitious." She said judges had agreed on about 30 of the witnesses proposed by lawyers for the prosecution, defense and civil parties. They dropped a handful of witnesses and postponed a decision on about 20 others. She did not say when a decision would be made. Among those who are to be summoned to testify are British journalist Nic Dunlop, who discovered Duch in northwestern Cambodia in 1999. An American scholar, David Chandler, the author of several books on Cambodia, will also be asked to testify, the court said. Duch oversaw the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh _ previously a school, now the Tuol Sleng genocide museum _ where some 16,000 men, women and children were detained and tortured. Only a handful survived. Duch, 66, is the only defendant who has expressed remorse for his actions. He is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape. He did not address the court Tuesday but through his lawyer he again voiced regret. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch disappeared for two decades, living under two other names and converting to Christianity before he was located by Dunlop, the British journalist. Judges also still need to decide whether to admit as evidence a short film shot by Vietnamese soldiers when they entered Tuol Sleng prison in January 1979 after toppling the Khmer Rouge. The film, which shows decapitated bodies and previously unknown child survivors, was only released by Vietnam in December. Co-prosecutor Chea Leang said the film provided "crucial" new facts and urged judges to admit it as evidence.

One of Duch's defense lawyers, Car Savuth, argued that the film was manufactured by the Vietnamese. He said orders had been given to kill all prisoners so there could not have been child survivors when the Vietnamese arrived.

"There were no children at S-21 _ they were all executed," Duch's lawyer said, arguing that the film was "politically motivated to disguise the truth."

Duch's trial began 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated. The tribunal, which incorporates mixed teams of foreign and Cambodian judges, prosecutors and defenders, has drawn sharp criticism. Its snail-paced proceedings have been plagued by political interference from the Cambodian government as well as allegations of bias and corruption.

Others facing trial are Khieu Samphan, the group's former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue.

All four have denied committing crimes.