Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'Killing Fields' judges are appointed in Cambodia

Cambodia approved on Thursday the domestic and international judges who will try Pol Pot's top surviving henchmen for the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide, in which an estimated 1.7 million people died.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said the southeast Asian nation's top legal body, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, had appointed 13 international judges and prosecutors, including reserves, for the long-awaited tribunal.

It had also nominated 17 Cambodian counterparts for the United Nations backed court, which will use a complicated formula of majority voting to ensure that no convictions are possible without support from both sides, he said.

The names of the appointees were not immediately released, although Ang Vong Vathana said the international officials came from the United States, the Netherlands, Poland, France, Australia and Sri Lanka.

Many analysts fear political interference in the court given the dire state of Cambodia's judicial system, which was decimated by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge's policy of targeting the intelligentsia for extermination.

Many senior members of the government, including long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, were also members of the Khmer Rouge at some point although none is expected to appear in court.

However, Ang Vong Vathana said the Cambodian judges, some of whom received legal training in the former Soviet Union and East Germany, were up to the task.

"I don't know how much international experience they have, but in terms of dealing with domestic crime, they are capable of doing their job," he told Reuters.

Cambodia's legal system derives from French colonial times, meaning that although there is no official trial "start date", once prosecutors and investigating judges open their files, the process can be deemed under way.

U.N. and Cambodian officials said in February the tribunal, which has a 3-year budget of US$56.3 million, would be operating in earnest by 2007.

Almost every Cambodian family lost relatives under the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, in which Pol Pot's "Year Zero" dream of creating an agrarian, peasant utopia turned into the nightmare of the "Killing Fields".

Most of the victims were tortured and executed, or died of starvation, forced labor or disease. No Khmer Rouge leader has faced justice for the atrocities. Pol Pot himself died in a jungle guerrilla hideout on the Thai border in 1998.


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