03 July 2006
In Cambodia, the process of trying Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide officially began Monday as judges and prosecutors were sworn in. The court dates have yet to be set, but officials say they expect the trials to begin early next year.
Seventeen judges from Cambodia and 10 others appointed by the United Nations took the oath of office Monday inside Phnom Penh's royal palace.
The tribunal's media officer, Helen Jarvis, called it a historic day.
"Cambodians have been waiting for a whole generation for this day, which really kicks off the next phase of the judicial process," she said.
She said the judges will launch their investigations next week after spending this week setting up structures and mechanisms for the process.
They are investigating charges of genocide and crimes against humanity by leaders of the Khmer Rouge. During its reign of terror in the mid-1970s, known as the Killing Fields, an estimated 1.7 million people died from mass executions, torture, forced labor and starvation.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died eight years ago, but several senior leaders, now aging and sick, are expected to stand trial. They say they are keen to defend themselves.
The tribunal was delayed for years by disputes over its composition and funding.
Cambodian and U.N. negotiators eventually agreed that the accused would be tried under Cambodian law and by Cambodian judges but with international co-judges to ensure that the process met international legal standards.
The investigation phase is expected to take about six months, after which the results are to be handed over to the investigating judges. Officials say they expect the court trials to begin early next year.
Jarvis says surveys show that 80 percent of Cambodians support the process.
"People are just relieved that after so many delays we finally seem to be implementing what's been planned for so long," she said.
Because of the difficulties in forming the tribunal, many Cambodians had despaired of seeing justice in their lifetimes. And activists say the healing process has also been delayed for the estimated two-thirds of the Cambodian people who still suffer psychological effects from the Khmer Rouge ordeal.