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Wheels of justice turning slowly in Cambodia

Khmer Rouge tribunal finally gets a home as nation tries to correct sins of the past

Wheels of justice turning slowly   in Cambodia

It was a low-key ceremony; the simple handover of buildings from one government body to another.

But the Cambodian military's gifting Tuesday of part of its national headquarters complex to the government's Khmer Rouge tribunal taskforce carried huge symbolic importance for a country still recovering from the 1970s genocide.

The move finally gave the tribunal's Extraordinary Chambers a home, 27 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and the country, wrecked by repression and mass death, began what has been a very long road to justice.

"A shift from planning to implementation ... will put our work on a new level," said Helen Jarvis, a taskforce advisor who called the handover "highly significant."

UN officials are expected to arrive next month to begin work at the Kambol offices. Cambodia is already in the process of approving the international court staff, Jarvis said.

One of the biggest obstacles, a 9.6-million-dollar shortfall on the Cambodian side, should be sorted out soon, she said.

Inside the military compound in Kambol two buildings - an office complex and the 500-seat courthouse - stand as the first physical manifestation of years of tortured negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations.

Since Cambodia first asked the world body for help in 1997, Prime Minister Hun Sen has proven reluctant to commit resources to a trial.

The government has also been blamed for trying to derail the process by delaying talks, which the United Nations walked away from in 2001.

What emerged in a 2003 agreement is a complicated joint tribunal, where neither international nor Cambodian judges will have the majority.

As many as two million people died of starvation, overwork or execution under the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule which began in 1975, when the communist guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh and, hours later, drove its entire population into the countryside.

Nearly four years later the Vietnamese invaded and ousted the Khmer Rouge from power.

But Cambodia had been turned into a wasteland of empty cities, killing fields and vast collective farms where hundreds of thousands literally worked themselves to death.

No one has faced prosecution for the atrocities.

A trial - the world's first for genocide - was hastily held in August 1979, when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his foreign minister, Ieng Sary, were put on the dock in absentia and sentenced to death. Ieng Sary's sentence was later commuted by then-King Norodom Sihanouk.

The trial "was more of a symbolic statement," said Jarvis. "To be frank, it was troublesome."

The issue largely disappeared during the 1980s, when a civil war raged amid Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, during which Hanoi installed a government that remains relatively unchanged today.

Many current government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, are former Khmer Rouge themselves.

The country is full of former regime members, many of them simple fighters or low-level cadres, illustrating one of the key problems facing the architects of Cambodia's genocide trial: how many people do you put in the dock?

"Everyone from the government to the United Nations agrees that it would be useless to put hundreds of people on trial," Jarvis said.

"You won't see roaming bands of police going through the community arresting people."

The trial law calls only for the prosecution of senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

But Pol Pot died in 1998, and only two of about 10 former cadre leaders are in jail.

Military commander Ta Mok and Duch - who headed the Tuol Sleng prison where some 17,000 men, women and children were tortured before being bludgeoned to death at mass graves outside Phnom Penh - were both arrested in 1999.

But several other key leaders, including Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's number two Nuon Chea and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, live freely among those whose lives they once controled absolutely.

Although academics say these men are slated for prosecution, Jarvis said no names were mentioned during negotiations over a tribunal framework.

"It is up to the courts," she said.

But judicial experts and rights observers say Cambodia's courts suffer from too much political influence, as shown by recent arrests of government critics, undermining any Khmer Rouge trial being held by the country's judiciary.

"The decision to situate the (Extraordinary Chambers) within the domestic courts places an enormous responsibility on Cambodian authorities that will be hard to fulfill," said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Jarvis acknowledged that the burden would be on the Cambodians to hold a trial to international standards.

"But we have to be optimistic about it, or say Cambodia has no right to have its own judges and own courts, and somebody else should jump in and run the whole show," she said.

"What's the alternative - to not have a trial?"

Updated : 2021-06-13 13:49 GMT+08:00