Monday, July 10, 2006

Prosecution stage of Khmer Rouge trial to begin Monday

Jul 7, 2006, 10:29 GMT


Phnom Penh - The prosecution stage of the long-awaited trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders will finally begin Monday, but indictments will be much slower to come, the international co-prosecutor of the Extraordinary Chambers, Robert Petit, said Friday.

Speaking at a press conference in Phnom Penh introducing the judicial officers set to preside over the hearings, Petit and principal defender Rupert Stilbeck both warned that no assumptions of guilt would be made, and that to prosecute, indict and defend those accused to international standard would be a slow and complex process.

'Let me assure you, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is real and all of the judicial officials sitting before you today are dedicated to its success,' Petit said.

However, he said 'the structure and concept of this court is unlike any history, and as a result we will face many challenges in our work.'

'For my office, the Office of the Co-Prosecutor ... we begin work on Monday. It does not mean, however, that indictments will be issued on Tuesday.'

The difficulties facing the court became apparent even as Friday's gathering progressed, as organizers rushed to find a translator for French-speaking co-investigating judge Marcel Lemonde as he spoke of the urgent need to meld a range of different legal systems in a chaotic hour-long press conference conducted at times simultaneously in English, Khmer and French.

Defender Stilbeck made it clear that international standards of justice meant that all defendants had the right to a fair trial, a presumption of innocence and effective legal representation and that these rights would be strictly enforced.

'These fundamental principals are even more important perhaps in these trials than ever before because more than ever before there is an expectation that these people are guilty,' he said.

He dismissed concerns about the impartiality of some Cambodian judges marring future verdicts, saying the ECCC code of ethics allowed for this to be questioned and for any judicial member who failed to meet international standards to be removed.

'At every other criminal tribunal of this nature there have been challenged to judges based on impartiality ... I expect similar challenges at this tribunal based on the international standards that will apply,' he said.

He said these standards had proved adequate in the past, noting that the president of the crimes against humanity trial in Sierra Leone had been removed after such challenges.

However despite a prosecution process slated to take six months to complete now lying ahead and stringent attention to the highest standards of justice being observed, the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders would not be allowed to become bogged down, co-investigating judge You Bunleng said.

'This tribunal has a limited budget and the timeframe is definitive,' Bunleng said.

The 56.3 million dollar tribunal, budgeted to take three years to complete, now looks certain to get underway 31 years after the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge's Democratic Kampuchea regime took power and began one of the bloodiest genocides of the last century in a drive to turn the nation into an agrarian utopia.

Up to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, overwork, torture and execution during the 1975 to 1979 rule.

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