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Khmer Rouge trial opens in Cambodia amid claims of interference (video)

Critics say political interference and judicial misconduct are tarnishing the UN-backed Khmer Rouge trial, seen as key to justice more than 30 years after the brutal regime was ousted.

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Prosecutors have appealed the ruling, and Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge crimes, said it would be “difficult medicine to swallow” for many Cambodians if Ieng Thirith is released. Yoy Chieng, a regime survivor who attended today’s hearing, believes it was a ploy to evade justice. “If the court releases Ieng Thirith, the other three might pretend they have some mental problems as well,” she says.

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Race against the clock ...

The ruling only underscores the urgency of trying the remaining defendants, who many fear may not live to see the end of the complex trial. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s supreme leader, died in 1998 at a jungle camp along the Thai border, and the tribunal has managed just one conviction since 2006: that of former schoolteacher Kaing Guek Eav – better known as Comrade Duch – who was sentenced to 30 years jail last year for heading the grisly S-21 prison and torture center in Phnom Penh.

As well as racing against the clock, the court is battling mounting claims of political interference, judicial misconduct, and violations of victims’ rights by some court staff. Critics say judges deliberately botched an investigation into a potential third case under political pressure from the Cambodian government, which publicly opposes additional prosecutions.

In October, German co-investigating judge Siegfried Blunk resigned, claiming that public government opposition to future prosecutions had undermined the tribunal’s perceived independence, prompting calls for the UN to take a stronger stand.

“We would like to see the UN trying to put an end to this now,” says Clair Duffy, a court monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has called for a panel of independent experts to probe the allegations. Inaction risked tainting the court’s past and future achievements. “There’s too much history to this for them to just push ahead,” Ms. Duffy says.

How Cambodians see it

Theary Seng, a prominent regime survivor and victims advocate, last week withdrew her status as a civil party to the trial, saying it had become a “farce” and that it was time for the UN to pull the plug. “The magnitude of it is no longer acceptable,” she said.

But for some Khmer Rouge survivors, seeing their former tormentors in the dock after three decades has been worth the wait. Khem Vuthy lost seven members of her immediate family during the regime, and recalled being forced to eat cockroaches and lizards in order to survive at a rural labor camp. “I’ve heard a lot of the problems at the court, but I believe the court will bring justice,” she says. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

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