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Cambodian horror on trial February 17, 2009

Posted by chandrapong007 in Cambodia, History, Politics.
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Cambodia horror on trial


Bill Schiller

Asia Bureau


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – On a barren patch of scrub and swamp south of this city, it stands in shocking testimony to one of the worst atrocities of our times: a 17-level tower of skulls and bones from some of the two million people who perished at the hands of Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime.


And a single, stark truth stands out: for more than 30 years, the perpetrators got away with it.


Tomorrow, however, in a courtroom on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, a special court will convene to set that right. For the henchmen who survived their leader – Pol Pot died peacefully in 1998 – the day of reckoning has arrived.


Hearings begin tomorrow for Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” who ran Tuol Sleng, the regime’s biggest torture and death chamber from 1975 to 1979 – the first of at least five figures to face justice after three decades.


At the centre of the effort to bring the perpetrators to justice is Canadian lawyer and co-prosecutor, Robert Petit. “You cannot build a future,” says Petit, seated in his office in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia – as the tribunal is known – “unless you deal with the past.”


It took 10 years of sometimes-contentious negotiations between Cambodia and the international community to fashion a hybrid court – entirely from scratch – to deal with the tragedy. It still makes the government here wary.


The reason is simple: Some of Cambodia’s current leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once Khmer Rouge officials.


But more than a decade ago, after he had left the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen originally called on the UN to help Cambodia assemble a court to deal with war crimes.


Later, when he changed his mind, the international community pressed on.


Today, his government supports the court and has promised not to grant pardons for any guilty verdicts.


But many Cambodians still feel the government has negotiated a deal that gives it strategic leverage: Cambodian judges, for example, outnumber internationals.


And it is, in fact, a Cambodian court, not an international one – though it has significant international input. “It is a hybrid Cambodian court,” explains Petit, “but withdrawn from the national system.


“We have internationals with decision-making powers, we have international law being applied and we have a proceeding that will be transparent and open.”


But once the first trial gets underway, he says, “it will take on a life of its own.”


Can this process finally bring justice to the Cambodian people?


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