PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA (Jul 5, 2006)
Judges and prosecutors for a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia began drawing up plans yesterday to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Cambodian and foreign judicial officials started four days of discussions on holding the trials, expected to start in 2007, said Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the tribunal's administration office.
The swearing-in on Monday of 17 Cambodian and 10 UN-appointed foreign jurists was a major step toward seeking justice for the victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Its policies in the late 1970s are blamed for an estimated 1.7 million deaths.
"They will be discussing prosecutorial and judicial planning, and their code of ethics," Sambath said.
The foreign jurists will be studying Cambodian traditions and the laws under which the tribunal was established. Their Cambodian counterparts will learn about international laws and other genocide tribunals.
Nicolas Michel, UN under-secretary-general for legal affairs, called the swearing-in "a historic landmark," but also said it was "just the beginning" step toward justice.
"There will be moments of great satisfaction, but also moments of doubt," he said Monday, urging the judges and prosecutors to act with professionalism and impartiality. "Your best qualities will be required: moral strength and the determination to reach our goal."
The tribunal offices were inaugurated early this year, after Cambodia and the UN agreed in 2003 to jointly establish the tribunal.
Drawn-out negotiations that started in 1999 and funding problems have led some critics to suggest that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government has intentionally stalled the process to avoid embarrassing Khmer Rouge members who back the government.
The Khmer Rouge movement collapsed in 1999, but none of its top leaders have been held accountable for atrocities.
Its leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998, but several of his top deputies, aging and infirm, still live freely in Cambodia.
International human rights groups welcomed the start of the long-awaited judicial process. But some expressed skepticism, citing government's control over Cambodia's judicial system.
"I think there are reasons to think that this whole process will fail," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The Cambodian judges and prosecutors remain politically controlled, and will do whatever the government tells them to do."