Clamour rises for Khmer Rouge trial as political crisis ends

After a year-long political deadlock, the formation of a new government in Cambodia has finally cleared the way for ex-Khmer Rouge leaders to stand trial over the killing of up to two million of their compatriots.

Cambodia wants to see the Khmer Rouge regime in the dock, but as the clock ticks on the final days of its surviving leaders — most of them now in their 70s — rows continue over who will pay the costs of justice.

At least six surviving leaders have been cited for trial, accused by scholars of genocide and crimes against humanity during their reign of terror.

Pol Pot, who headed the murderous regime from 1975-79, was unceremoniously cremated over tyres after his death in 1998, months after he was purged by his former subordinates.

Some of his henchmen are in jail, including Ta Mok, the former military commander dubbed "The Butcher" and Kang Kek Ieu, or "Duch" head of the regime’s infamous S-21 torture centre.

But others roam free including Ieng Sary, former foreign minister, who returned to Cambodia last week after a month in a Thai hospital suffering heart problems and highlighting the urgent need for the tribunal.

The UN and the Cambodian government struck a deal in June 2003 to see the ageing leaders stand trial but inconclusive elections in July last year left the country without a government and halted momentum.

Cambodia’s two leading political parties finally started work Friday after spending months thrashing out a coalition deal and Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged a top task would be ensuring the trial went ahead.

Observers expect key legislation to sanction the trials to be passed within three months, but a UN estimate of a war crimes tribunal that rose as high as 63 million dollars has annoyed potential donors.

Some close to the process expect it to take another year after the legislation is passed for the international tribunal to begin work.

The UN had been expected in February to appeal to donor nations for money to pay for the tribunal, then expected to cost between 20 and 55 million dollars.

But the UN-proposed figure increased and cast doubt over a swift start to the trials, said Craig Etcheson, a US-based Khmer Rouge researcher closely following developments.

Etcheson said donors are demanding the budget be cut to 30 million dollars for the three years of proceedings after being stung over the cost of other international tribunals.

The UN’s case is hardly helped by the delay in its war crimes hearings of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic because of his health problems as the case drags into its third year. The Khmer Rouge leaders are a decade older.

The donors also want guarantees that the trial will be over within three years and costs cut.

"In short, the donors appear to have been picking apart the budget line by line, questioning pretty much everything," Etcheson told AFP.

He said it appeared the only way to achieve the cuts would be to dramatically cut the number of UN staff involved in the proceedings, a move backed by the Cambodian government.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia which has been accumulating evidence of atrocities, said justice had to be done for the sake of the elderly and traumatised Cambodian society.

"Survivors have died. We need to make sure that survivors see justice done. The government must really try to give justice to the people," he said.

More than 10,000 booklets in Khmer and a smaller number in English about the trial are about to be distributed around the country and two weeks of training for judges and lawyers are slated for next month.