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Khmer Rouge war-crimes trial of prison chief Duch closes in surprise twist

The Khmer Rouge war-crimes trial for regime leader Duch ended with a plea for acquittal. Some say the UN tribunal is in danger of falling apart due to political interference.

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In addition to the four members of the regime still awaiting trial, the prosecution has announced its intention to pursue charges against five more suspects. But Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, has said he would rather see the court fail than expand the scope of prosecution. He raised the specter of civil war if the court were to arrest more former Khmer Rouge members, a threat dismissed by most analysts.

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Mr. Chandler suggested instead that further trials could harm the reputations of government officials who were once members of the Khmer Rouge.

"Their fear is it expands to five more, why not 10? What happens if they start pointing fingers? They are afraid that might implicate them," said Mr. Chandler.

In particular, he mentioned Chea Sim, now president of the Senate, and Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly. They were both military division commanders under the Khmer Rouge.

"They did some bad stuff, running raids into Vietnam, and it's documented," said Mr. Chandler.

They are among a handful of government officials who have refused requests to act as witnesses in the case against the four suspects currently awaiting trial, said Panhavuth Long of the Open Society Justice Institute (OSJI).

A report released on Thursday by OSJI stated concerns about "the refusal of the Cambodian investigating judge to participate in summoning for questioning witnesses who hold a high rank in the Cambodian government, [and] statements by key government officials that it was not necessary for the officials to comply with the summonses."

Trial attracts large audience

Despite the danger that political interference could be the court's undoing, Mr. Panhavuth said the Duch trial has been a success, both as an example of judicial independence and for the fact that it has established a key aspect of "historical record" of the Khmer Rouge period.

The trial has also generated tremendous interest among Cambodians. More than 28,000 people have attended 77 days of proceedings, and people throughout the country have tuned into live radio and television broadcasts of the trial, said Reach Sambath, the court spokesman.

"This is part of the healing process for the suffering they kept with them for 30 years," said Mr. Reach.

Such suffering still traumatizes Duch's victims, including the handful of survivors of S-21, such as Norng Chanphal. He was brought to the prison as a child along with his mother, who was immediately put in a jail cell.

"I saw her standing at the window holding the bars, looking at me like she wanted to say something," recalled Mr. Norng who began weeping at the memory. "Even after 30 years, I still remember that picture of my mother standing at the window."

He said seeing Duch on trial gave him a small measure of satisfaction.

"This way we find justice for my family and other Cambodians as well. For 30 years, there was no justice for my mother," he said.

Also: For former Khmer Rouge prisoners, reparations are key to justice