Victims of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Fear Derailment of Trials

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 2, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- When a sprawling courthouse was inaugurated on the outskirts of this capital last year, it was largely welcomed by Cambodians, who expressed hope that one day the leaders of the Khmer Rouge would sit inside, squirm in the docks and face comeuppance for overseeing the brutal deaths of as many as 1.7 million people a quarter-century ago.

Today, however, the hopes of many Khmer Rouge victims have turned to frustrations.

Rather than providing a promised airing of truth, the proceedings have become mired in a debate over legal standards that has delayed indictments and pushed back the start of the trials by months. Some observers now fear the dispute could derail the trials altogether.

At stake is the best chance for a reckoning of a regime that presided over the systematic mass murder of its own people with a fervor still little understood. On a radical communist crusade to create a peasant society free from foreign influence, the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 executed, tortured and starved to death Cambodians -- particularly the educated, moneyed and devout.

Last Friday, a multinational tribunal of Cambodian and United Nations-appointed judges, prosecutors and defenders said it had failed to resolve all of its differences over the adoption of internationally accepted legal procedures for the trials.

"We need to adopt codes for these trials that would let us do our jobs independently, but until they are, it is hard to envision a way to even begin these trials," said Rupert Skilbeck, the United Nations' principal defender assigned to the tribunal.

Critics say that by rebuffing across-the-board international standards, the Cambodian government is effectively trying to exert political control over the trials in a bid to limit the scope of information that will be publicly aired. The negotiations have grown so tense that senior diplomats here say U.N. officials have indicated they may simply walk out.

Human rights groups are assailing the Cambodian government for stacking the court with judges who have close ties to the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In a nation where several current and high-ranking government officials have still-unclear links to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, critics say the government's failure to appoint more independent-minded judges has gravely damaged its credibility.

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's despotic leader, died a free man in 1998. And many of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders -- including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's chief deputy, known as "Brother Number Two" -- are aged.

"There are still former Khmer Rouge people out there, living safe lives in Cambodia as if they had done nothing wrong," said Sok Chea, 40, whose father, the scion of a wealthy family, was seized and killed by Khmer Rouge troops in 1975. Like thousands of others, Sok was relocated by the Khmer Rouge to a communal farm, and for four years, she faced bouts of starvation, torture and rape.

"I thought we might be close to justice," she said. "But now I am no longer sure. It makes me feel very tired, and very sad."

The judges for the Khmer Rouge trials were officially sworn in last July, almost a decade after the Cambodian government first approached the United Nations for cooperation and funding to launch the trials. Given the broad corruption in Cambodia's judicial system, U.N. officials had pressed for a court dominated by international judges. But they ultimately accepted a compromise in which both Cambodian and U.N.-appointed judges would sit on the same tribunal.

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