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Cambodia tribunal may pave way for judicial reform

Cambodia has taken a big step toward finally bringing to justice some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a regime blamed for the death of one-fifth of the populace in the 1970s.

The Cambodian Parliament ratified an agreement with the United Nations earlier this month to form an international tribunal to try surviving senior leaders. However, no date has been set for the trials, expected to cost more than $50 million - money not yet secured.

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Aside from healing the wounds of what the UN has termed a genocide, the internationally-backed process could help professionalize the judiciary in a country that has notoriously corrupt cops and courts. But optimism has been tempered by the six years of negotiations and legislative delays that held up the UN agreement and ratification; many Cambodians lost hope long ago.

The ratification came amid other uncertainties about Cambodia's future. Last Thursday, Cambodia's 81-year-old King Norodom Sihanouk announced his abdication, citing ill health. Within a day, lawmakers approved legislation to establish a Throne Council to choose his successor - evidence the government can move quickly when it so chooses.

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An told the Associated Press that Cambodia could begin the Khmer Rouge trials by the end of next year.

The tribunal can provide a vision "for a better society, for a better country," says Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has spent years gathering evidence against former Khmer Rouge leaders. He says few trained Cambodian jurists survived the Khmer Rouge regime; the country needs a new generation of legal leaders.

To that end, the Cambodian government and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) are teaching judges and prosecutors about war crimes, genocide, humanitarian law, and international standards of justice.

Such training, according to UNDP, adds to overall legal and judicial reform efforts. As Youk Chhang notes, Cambodians have little access to justice. Aid workers complain regularly of judges and police officers bought with bribes, criminals set free, and victims going uncompensated. Not least among the victims seeking justice are the millions awaiting the tribunal.

Only two former Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody: Ta Mok, a military commander called "The Butcher;" and Kang Kech Ieu, former head of a torture prison. The others who played a role in the 1975 to 1979 regime, during which at least 1.5 million Cambodians were killed or died of disease and starvation, remain free. Pol Pot died in 1998, but around 10 other leaders are expected to be prosecuted.

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The court will contain both Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors. The Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid group, says the tribunal should adopt its own rules of procedure, rather than rely on Cambodia's existing criminal procedural law, which does not meet international standards. Most important is focusing on victims' rights, a fair trial for the accused, and human rights protections. If the tribunal succeeds in those areas, the process could help improve Cambodia's overall justice system, says the legal group.

However, given Cambodia's poor track record on law and order, critics doubt the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be fair or just.

"As usual, the process and structure is very politicized and it is unlikely that there are any judges capable, willing, and independent enough to be part of the tribunal," says Naly Pilorge of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho.

Many Cambodians doubt that a tribunal will ever happen and doubt it would assuage victims who are still traumatized.

In August, the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID) conducted unscientific interviews of more than 500 Khmer Rouge survivors about their experiences and expectations of a tribunal. Eighty-nine percent of those questioned said they still think about the past. Many are angry and sad, and more than 40 percent said they still live in fear.

Almost all of those interviewed want a tribunal, but 44 percent said they would prefer no trial at all to a substandard one. "Many Cambodians are well aware that a second-class standard of justice at the ... trial may have serious long-term consequences," says Andrea Behm, KID legal adviser.