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Terrorism & Security

First Khmer Rouge trial begins in Cambodia

"Duch," the former commander of a prison where thousands were killed, is charged with crimes against humanity.

By Huma Yusuf / February 17, 2009

Cambodian justice: The trial of former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, left, better known as Duch, began Tuesday. He is the first to be tried over the killing of an estimated 1.7 million people during the regime's rule more than three decades ago.

Adrees Latif/AP

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The long-anticipated trial of former Khmer Rouge leader Kaing Guek Eav began in a Phnom Penh court on Tuesday. The trial, which is backed by the United Nations, is taking place 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, 13 years after the tribunal was initiated, and almost three years after the court was inaugurated. Still, observers fear that Cambodians will not get the satisfaction that justice has been delivered, as court proceedings have been plagued by corruption allegations and fears of political interference.

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According to the London-based daily The Guardian, Mr. Eav, better known as Duch, is charged with crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Many Cambodians complain that the "Killing Fields" tribunal is long overdue. According to Reuters, a draft agreement between the Cambodian government and the UN about the format for the trial was first floated in March 2003.

The English-language Cambodian daily The Phnom Penh Post reports that there is still a chance Duch's defense lawyers will present a compelling argument.

Meanwhile, legal representatives for civil parties at the tribunal are calling for new investigations to be launched against Duch in response to allegations that he organized forced marriages, which are also considered a crime against humanity, reports The Phnom Penh Post.

Duch's trial is expected to uncover information that would help the UN tribunal prosecute other former Khmer Rouge leaders, reports the BBC.

Although Duch's trial is being celebrated as an attempt to serve justice in Cambodia, human rights groups say the tribunal will be a test of judicial independence, reports The Times of London. Indeed, the tribunal has been plagued with allegations of corruption and political interference as Cambodian courts are controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, like other government officials, is a former Khmer Rouge member.

Still, an editorial in The Phnom Penh Post argues that high hopes are riding on the outcome of the trial.

Duch's trial is also providing an opportunity for Cambodian nationals to re-evaluate their dark history. Last week, Cambodia released its first textbook on the "Killing Fields" genocide, reports Reuters.

Regional countries have also been forced to revisit the past. For example, China on Tuesday defended its ties with Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, arguing that relations with the regime were part of "normal diplomatic relations," reports Reuters.

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