Killing Fields Trials A Step Closer

Photograph of Jodi Sanderholm sits inside the entryway to Arkansas City Dance, a dance studio where she worked as an instructor, Tuesday night, Jan. 9, 2007, in Arkansas City, Kan.
AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk on Friday signed a law establishing the framework for a U.N.-assisted trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, a government official said.

The action marks a giant step forward in the effort to the effort to punish some of the 20th century's worst human-rights violators.

Sihanouk signed the landmark legislation Friday afternoon at the Royal Palace in the capital, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The king's signature appears alongside those of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cabinet Minister Sok An, who was in charge of the committee which drafted the law, according to a copy of the law seen by The Associated Press.

Troubled Past

1953…King Norodom Sihanouk declares independence from France.
1965…Cambodia breaks diplomatic ties with U.S.
1969-1973…U.S bombs suspected communist Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia.
1970…U.S.-backed General Lon Nol overthrows Sihanouk and becomes president. Chasing Vietnamese troops, U.S. invades Cambodia.
1975…Khmer Rouge (KR) captures Phnom Penh.
1975-78…Under the rule of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, between one and three million die by summary execution, starvation or disease.
1978…Vietnam invades Cambodia. KR flees to countryside.
1982-1989…A coalition army of KR troops and forces loyal to King Sihanouk fight with Vietnamese for control of Cambodia.
1989…Vietnamese withdraw.
1990…UN peace plan accepted by four fighting factions.
1993…First elections held. KR continues to fight for control of northern territory.
1997…Second Prime Minister Hun Sen seizes power in what critics call a coup.
1998…Pol Pot dies. Hun Sen’s party wins national electons. Major defections by KR members.
2000…Int’l community and Cambodian government agree to launch a tribunal into KR atrocities.

(Sources: Lonely Planet, Human Rig The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 through 1979 and are blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians due to disease, overwork, starvation and execution. The regime's leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 but most of his deputies live free in Cambodia. No one has been brought to justice for their atrocities.

The king's approval had beeexpected, and paves the way for talks to begin between the government and the United Nations on finalizing details of the U.N.-assisted tribunal, which would include foreign judges and prosecutors.

“About the judgment and condemnation of those Khmer Rouge arch criminals, I don't have any objection,” Sihanouk wrote Thursday in response to questions from a foreign reporter. “...I will respect the final decision of the government and Parliament (Senate and the National Assembly).”

Parliament recently approved the tribunal legislation, and the country's Constitutional Council earlier this week ruled it legal.

In his note to London's Sunday Times, dated Thursday and faxed to news organizations, said that he'd been praying every week for years for the souls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

“I am, like the people of Cambodia, still mourning with my heart and spirit the horrible suffering of all those who were slaves under the tyranny of Pol Pot and his lieutenants,” Sihanouk wrote in French in his three-page note.

The government and the United Nations must sign a memorandum of understanding on details of the law's implementation before an internationally assisted trial can start. Negotiations over the terms could take months to complete.

Earlier this week, Sok An said he expected the talks to go smoothly, even though the law ignores some concerns U.N. experts raised in February about an earlier draft.

However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has said several times in recent weeks that his government will proceed with the tribunal even if the United Nations is not satisfied with the law.

Earlier Friday, another government official said that the tribunal must start before March or else the top suspect in detention, according to law, would have to be released.

Om Yentieng, a personal adviser to Hun Sen, said the legal detention period for Ta Mok, the longtime military commander of the Khmer Rouge, expires in March. He did not say if Ta Mok could be re-arrested.

“We cannot delay the process of convening the trial beyond the detention period and allow Ta Mok to walk free,” Om Yentieng said.

Ta Mok, arrested at the Thai border in March 1999, is one of only two suspects in detention. The other is Kaing Khek Iev, better known by his revolutionary name Duch, who operated the regime's primary prison and torture center.

Other potential suspects in a Khmer Rouge tribunal remain free in Cambodia after reaching defection deals with Hun Sen's government in the late 1990s.

Critics of the tribunal law doubt it will deliver real justice because they say the proposed court remains susceptible to political influence.

But Om Yentieng brushed off those criticisms.

“The law is in its best form,” considering Cambodia's undeveloped legal system, he said.

“We cannot satisfy 100 or 200 million people,” Om Yentieng said. “This special tribunal is unprecedented and we should b proud of the eminent efforts made by the government.”

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