Monday, July 10, 2006

Cambodia swears in tribunal

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia took a final step towards finding long-awaited justice for former Khmer Rouge leaders Monday with a colourful swearing in ceremony for 10 foreign judges and prosecutors at the Royal Palace, marking the symbolic beginning of the tribunal.

Cambodia's Supreme Council of Magistracy, headed by King Norodom Sihamoni, appointed 17 Cambodian and 13 international judges and prosecutors for the tribunal in May.

Monday's ceremony, presided over by Buddhist monks, United Nations and palace officials inside the palace's most sacred Silver Pagoda and broadcast on national television, represented proof to many Cambodians that 31 years after one of the last century's most bloody regimes took power, justice was finally going to be seen to be done.

Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said New Zealand judge Sylvia Cartwright and US reserve co-prosecutor Paul Coffey were still to arrive, but that Monday nevertheless marked the beginning of proceedings beginning in earnest, with the prosecution stage - slated to take up to six months to complete - set to move forward immediately.

Foreign donors are footing most of the 56.3 million dollar bill for the trial, and the hearings are expected to be broadcast live across Cambodia so that victims of the Khmer Rouge and their families around the country can follow the proceedings.

In a speech marking the opening session of the Judicial Planning and Development Workshop earlier in the day, deputy director of the Extraordinary Chambers, Michelle Lee, told delegates that 45 international staff would provide administrative and logistical support to 30 international judicial officials and their staff.

"Today marks the beginning of the three-year judicial process. With the arrival of the international prosecutors we have reached our first milestone," Lee said.

The Extraordinary Chambers to hear the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders will be housed in a military compound west of the capital under tight security. Cambodian and foreign jurists visited the centre earlier Monday. Foreign prosecutors and judges have been assigned accommodation in the five-star Raffles Hotel L''Royale during their stay and the Interior Ministry has deployed 24-hour bodyguard units.

But even as Monday's ceremony proceeded, lawyer Benson Samay, who represents one of the men touted by experts to be a key defendant in the tribunal, Ta Mok, announced his client remained in Military Hospital in a serious but slightly improved condition after being transferred from his prison cell last Thursday suffering stomach pains and an unidentified respiratory complaint.

The 82-year-old "Grandfather" Mok was the military strongman of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime during its 1975 to 1979 rule and was nicknamed The Butcher for his alleged role in the bloody purges which characterized the increasingly paranoid regime's brief but bloody reign.

"His condition has improved, just a little. He is taking rice soup by himself and he can open his eyes," Samay said.

Ta Mok has languished in Military Prison since his capture in 1999 - one of only two former leaders to be imprisoned ahead of the tribunal alongside with former commandant of Pol Pot's secret S-21 torture centre, Duch. Ta Mok was formally charged with crimes against humanity in 2002.

Ta Mok's failing health highlights the worst fears of advocates of a trial - that proceedings forge ahead in haste, or risk the now elderly and mainly ailing former leaders never face justice at all. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in his jungle home of Anlong Veng in 1998.

Up to 2 million people died of starvation, overwork, disease, torture and execution under the Khmer Rouge regime's Democratic Kampuchea, which abolished religion, property rights, currency and schools in an ruthless drive to turn the nation into a classless agrarian utopia.

Pol Pot's top deputy Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan live freely in their communities. They have long declined to comment on the upcoming trial.

However, Monday's ceremony, for many Cambodians at least, made it now almost unavoidable that these top leaders may finally have to face their day in court.

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