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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Long wait for Killing Fields justice
By Tom Fawthrop
In Phnom Penh

Tourist at Tuol Sleng
More than a million people died under Khmer Rouge rule
More than 25 years after Cambodia's murderous Pol Pot regime was toppled, the battle to bring his henchmen to justice appears almost won.

The vote by Cambodia's parliament on 4 October removes the final legal hurdle to establish a special Khmer Rouge tribunal backed by the UN.

Almost every Cambodian family was emotionally scarred by Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979.

The Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a genocide-research institute, estimated that at least 1.7m people died from execution, starvation and other unnatural causes under the Khmer Rouge - more than 20% of the population at the time.

The tribunal which will seek to bring the regime's architects to account has been debated ever since Pol Pot fell from power. But has been so mired in controversy that many Cambodians had all but given up hope of ever seeing any Khmer Rouge leaders in court.

Ieng Sary (left), Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Sun Hao (centre) and Nuon Chea (right) at Phnom Penh airport during Pol Pot's regime (exact date unknown - Tom Fawthrop archives)
China, a former Khmer Rouge ally, may try and block justice

Despite the death of several key Khmer Rouge figures, including Pol Pot, at least six surviving senior leaders are now finally expected to be put on trial in the capital Phnom Penh, by early 2005.

The timing partly depends on finding enough funding. The UN is about to launch a international appeal for voluntary donations from member states to meet the estimated $50m cost stretched over three years.

So far only Australia has earmarked a specific sum - $2.2 million.

Slow in coming

The delay in setting up the tribunal have never been due to any lack of evidence.

The cry for justice, which echoes back to the early 1980s, had been muted by Western support for Pol Pot during the Cold War.

Former PM Khieu Samphan (top L), former deputy Neon Chea (top R), former army commander Ta Mok (bottom L) and former FM Ieng Sary (bottom R)

It was not until 1997 - 18 years after the regime was toppled - that all UN member states formally recognised the mass killing of the Khmer Rouge regime, passing a human rights resolution in support of helping the Cambodian government to deal with its traumatic past.

The Cambodian model is a mixed tribunal based on substantial international participation: an international co-prosecutor, co-investigating judge and other foreign judges are all to be nominated by the UN secretary general.

In the trial court, three Cambodian judges will sit alongside two foreigners.

It took five years of legal wrangling with the UN, involving major compromises on both sides, to get the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Law passed.

Even then, Human Rights Watch and other critics denounced its provisions as a basis for a "sham trial controlled by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen".

The UN legal team, headed by Hans Corell, also distrusted the Cambodian prime minister - a former Khmer Rouge soldier who later turned dissident against the Pol Pot regime.

Insistence on near-perfect justice risks losing the good for the sake of the unattainable
David Scheffer

There have been other criticisms of the model - Cambodia's legal system lacks an independent judiciary and corruption is rife within the courts, critics said. Hun Sen, while he is an elected prime minister, effectively controls the police, military and sometimes the courts as well.

However, former US ambassador for war crimes David Scheffer points out that the Cambodian law contains checks and balances, including the super-majority provision: that every majority court verdict requires the approval of at least one international judge.

Likely defendants

Only two of the probable defendants - Ta Mok and Kaing Khek Iev, also known as Duch - are in detention awaiting trial.

The fact that senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are still at large and living quietly in Cambodia has fuelled suspicion that they are protected by amnesties and will never be put on trial.

The case of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign minister, has been particularly controversial because of a pardon he received from King Sihanouk in 1996, based on Ieng Sary's defection from the Khmer Rouge and pledge to give up armed struggle.

The new tribunal, however, makes it clear that no Khmer Rouge leaders are exempt from prosecution. Ieng Sary may be charged with a range of other indictments, including crimes against humanity.

The UN and Cambodian negotiators always agreed that low-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, which would include some government officials, should not be prosecuted - in the interests of national reconciliation.

According to Mr Scheffer, "insistence on near-perfect justice risks losing the good for the sake of the unattainable".

China's role

Many people see a greater threat to justice may come from China, the country that has most to lose from a full accounting of the crimes of the Pol Pot regime.

As Beijing's strategic ally, more than 15,000 Chinese advisors, hundreds of tanks and an arsenal weapons were dispatched to Phnom Penh from 1975-79.

The Hun Sen government, once Beijing's bitter enemy, is today one of China's closest friends.

A senior Phnom Penh diplomat claimed that China has many times delayed progress on the tribunal and Hun Sen has been subject to considerable pressure over possible loss of economic aid.

But the ultimate enemy of justice is now time. There is a real prospect that the ageing suspects will either join Pol Pot in the grave, or else attempt to escape prosecution on medical grounds.

After 25 years of shamefully lost time, millions of Cambodians now demand a closure to their collective grief in the fastest possible time.

Khmer Rouge tribunal approved
04 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Khmer Rouge genocide admission
30 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific
UN and Cambodia sign court deal
06 Jun 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Khmer Rouge's legacy of fear
24 May 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Key figures in the Khmer Rouge
17 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Surviving the Khmer Rouge
24 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Pol Pot: Life of a tyrant
14 Apr 00  |  Asia-Pacific

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