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Long-delayed Khmer Rouge genocide trial to begin

Human rights groups welcomed the long-awaited start Monday of Cambodia's first genocide trial, but urged the UN-backed tribunal to bring many more Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

world Updated: Mar 29, 2009 19:56 IST
Grant Peck
Grant Peck

Human rights groups welcomed the long-awaited start Monday of Cambodia's first genocide trial, but urged the UN-backed tribunal to bring many more Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

The tribunal is seeking to establish responsibility for the ultra-communist group's brutal 1975-79 rule, when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation, slave-like working conditions and medical neglect.

On Monday, prosecutors launch their case against Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as torture and homicide.

Four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are to be tried over the next year. The group's top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Duch commanded the main Khmer Rouge prison, named S-21 or Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been sent to their deaths after undergoing torture. "The Cambodian people will finally see one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge leaders face trial," the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement. "But many more need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes."

Critics of the tribunal charge that Cambodia's government has sought to limit the tribunal's scope because other potential suspects are now loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and to arrest them could be politically awkward.

Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, also questioned why so few people were being tried in the mass killings.

"The successful start of the Duch trial ... does nothing to address the fact that only five people may be held accountable for the crimes that led to the deaths of as many as 2 million people," Adams said. "It's a ridiculous proposition that only five people should be held accountable."

The trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the tribunal is called, comes three decades after the Khmer Rouge was toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated.

Political wrangling, corruption scandals and inadequate financing contributed to the delays.

Amnesty International urged the United Nations and the Cambodian government to address allegations that Cambodian staff have been required to pay kickbacks to government officials for appointments. The charges cast "serious doubts on the chambers' competence, independence and impartiality," it said.

"Any corruption allegations must be investigated promptly and thoroughly," said Brittis Edman, Amnesty International's Cambodia researcher. "A failure to do so risks undermining the credibility of the whole institution and what it is trying to accomplish." The tribunal operates under both Cambodian and international law with Cambodian and foreign staff. It is under the joint administration of Cambodia and the U.N., which operate under separate budgets.

The court continues to be plagued by funding problems and cost overruns, and most of the international aid donors providing its budget have refused since last July to release new funds to the Cambodian side of the court because of the concerns about corruption.

However, on March 20, Japan injected another $200,000 to pay salaries for 251 Cambodian court employees. Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said the sum would carry them through March. Duch is the only one of the defendants to express remorse for his actions.

"Duch acknowledges the facts he's being charged with," his French lawyer, Francois Roux, said last month. "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims." Roux said Sunday that Duch was tense on the eve of going to court, but also looking forward to publicly presenting his side of the story after 10 years in jail awaiting trial.

Associated Press writers Susan Postlewaite and Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.

First Published: Mar 29, 2009 19:55 IST