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Khmer Rouge leaders face justice test

Cambodians hope for a fair trial even though a dispute remains over number of suspects and corruption allegations.


PHNOM PENH // Dreams of baguettes kept Youk Chhang alive during four years of forced labour under the Khmer Rouge regime. "It was not my mother, it was not God," he said, explaining how he maintained hope and sanity during those years of near-starvation. "I imagined fried chicken and baguettes before I slept. It worked; it saved me." In the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, such items were considered symbols of foreign capitalism. For Mr Chhang, who was 13 when he was taken from his family, they were symbols of his lost childhood. Dreaming about them became a form of resistance against the regime. "I dared to think capitalist bourgeois, I dared to think food," he said. "The Khmer Rouge wanted to control you emotionally. You fought with the Khmer Rouge emotionally, silently." For the past 12 years, Mr Chang has waged a different kind of battle against the Khmer Rouge. He heads the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, where researchers gather evidence of atrocities committed by a regime that killed as many as two million people through torture, execution, sickness and starvation. Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, an international tribunal finally begins proceedings against the first of five leaders today. The Documentation Centre provided 85 per cent of the documents that lawyers will be using as evidence, Mr Chhang said. But the tribunal itself is on trial - in the court of public opinion. Cambodians and international observers are watching to see if the UN-backed court can deliver justice free from political interference. "Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," said Sara Colm, a Cambodia-based senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. Two key issues remain unresolved even as the first trial commences: a dispute over how many suspects to try, and allegations of corruption. After the UN established an anti-corruption programme in July, an unidentified number of Cambodian court staff filed complaints alleging that they were forced to pay kickbacks to officials to obtain and keep their jobs, according to an internal UN document that has been quoted by local media. The UN asked the Cambodian government to investigate the claims. The government "expressed hostility toward the UN's efforts to address the kickback issue," according to an a report published in October by the Cambodian Justice Initiative (CJI), a watchdog group backed by the billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute. On Jan 9, the municipal court in Phnom Penh launched an investigation. But it was abruptly shut down on Feb 5, two days after the deputy prosecutor, Sok Kalyan, stated his intention to call multiple witnesses. "You have corruption in all courts in Cambodia," said Panhavuth Long, of CJI. "But at the tribunal you have the UN, and the UN is here to ensure a legacy. Is this the kind of legacy you want to leave to Cambodia?" He called on international donors to pressure the Cambodian government to root out corruption at the court. Mr Long also questioned why so few former Khmer Rouge leaders have been indicted: "The budget [for the tribunal] is more than US$100 million (Dh367m) just for five people. This is very wrong." Robert Petit, the Canadian co-prosecutor, is trying to expand the scope of prosecution, having submitted the names of six more suspects on Dec 8. That ignited a feud with Chea Leang, his Cambodian counterpart, who refused to support his submission. In an official court document dated Jan 5, Ms Leang said her opposition was the result of concerns about "past instability and the continued need for national reconciliation" and "the limited duration and budget of this court". Mr Petit rejected her reasons and filed a "statement of disagreement". Judges have yet to rule on the dispute. Mr Long said the decision to go after more suspects should rest solely on the strength of the case against them, rather than political factors. He suggested that Ms Leang's concerns reflected those of some politicians who would like to limit prosecutions to the five current suspects. "The government is afraid of what is downstream," Mr Long said, but refused to elaborate. During the 1990s, in a successful attempt to end a civil war and shore up political support, Cambodia's main parties made overtures to remaining Khmer Rouge. Many defected to the government and some were given official positions. If the scope of prosecution is widened, such former Khmer Rouge leaders could potentially face charges. The prosecution has not publicly released the names of the additional suspects it seeks to indict. But the Cambodia Daily newspaper reported on Saturday that one of those suspects, Van Rith, the former Khmer Rouge commerce minister, died in November. A source familiar with the investigations also said one of the suspects had died. The source said the other suspects included a government official and a military general. Not all observers are convinced that more than the current five suspects should face charges. "This is what has been agreed to by the Khmer [Cambodian] authorities," said David Chandler, a professor and author of books on the Khmer Rouge. "Asking or hoping for anything more seems to me to be a waste of time." And time is of the essence. There are concerns that elderly suspects may not live to stand trial, as some have serious health problems. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge mastermind and leader, died in April 1998. The trial of the first and youngest suspect, "Duch", 67, the former head of a torture centre, is considered the simplest case. He confessed his role as a torturer to Nic Dunlop, a photojournalist who tracked him down in 1999, and records from the torture centre link him directly to his crimes. The remaining four suspects held higher positions in the Khmer Rouge, but it may be more difficult to link them directly to mass murder: Nuon Chea, 82, was Pol Pot's deputy and is the highest-ranking former leader still living; Ieng Sary, 84, studied with Pol Pot in Paris and became the Khmer Rouge's foreign minister; Ieng Thirith, 78, was minister for social affairs (she is Ieng Sary's wife and was Pol Pot's sister-in-law); and Khieu Samphan, 77, was head of state while the regime was in power and took over from Pol Pot as leader in 1985. They may be tried together or separately. No date has been set, but the trials are expected to wrap up by 2011, according to court officials. "We hope it will show that justice delayed is, in this case, not denied completely," said Helen Jarvis, the head of the court's public affairs unit. jferrie@thenational.ae