PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Long-awaited trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders over their brutal 1970s rule will move a crucial step forward next month when Cambodian and U.N. judges are selected for the tribunal, officials said Thursday.
On May 4, the country's highest judicial body, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, will announce its selection of seven Cambodian judges, five U.N.-appointed judges and 2 prosecutors for the tribunal to hear the cases, said Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana.
"From June of this year, after the appointments of the judges and prosecutors, the legal process will start," said Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the tribunal.
Actual trials are not expected to begin until early 2007, he said.
Cambodia and the United Nations agreed in 2003 to jointly convene trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of responsibility in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution during the group's 1975-79 rule.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998. The ultra-communist movement collapsed a year later, but none of its top leaders has been brought to justice. Many still live and move freely in Cambodia.
Peter Foster, another spokesman for the tribunal, said the next few months would mark an important step forward.
"It is wrong to think that the bulk of the work won't start until 2007," Foster said. "It will start when the investigations begin, and they will start when the chief prosecutor arrives."
King Norodom Sihamoni and Cambodia's eight-member Supreme Council of Magistracy will base the selection of judges on a list of 12 candidates submitted by the United Nations in March and 17 Cambodian judges, said Ang Vong Vathana, who is also member of the council.
The final 12 judges selected will be divided between a lower and upper court. Both Cambodia and the U.N. will also one investigating judge each to lead the investigations.
Under the 2003 pact, Cambodia and the United Nations agreed to establish a special court for the Khmer Rouge leaders, but funding problems in Cambodia have delayed the trials. Many fear that remaining Khmer Rouge leaders may die before they can be tried.
An agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations set a US$56.3 million budget for the tribunal, of which the world body would cover US$43 million.
Cambodia agreed to pay $13.3 million of the cost, but has since asked foreign donors to finance US$9.6 million of its share. (AP)