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Now or Never for Tribunal Justice, Rights Groups Say

A proposed trial of Khmer Rouge leaders must meet international standards and get underway without delay, a handful of rights groups said in a statement Monday, ahead of talks between judges that could mean the advancement—or disintegration—of the tribunal.

The statement, from international and local agencies, precedes a critical meeting scheduled to begin Wednesday and last to March 16, where Cambodian and UN-appointed international judges hope to settle differences in internal rules.

Proceedings for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC, have stalled because judges have yet to agree on key points in the implementation of a trial, and the rights groups said Monday that failure to agree on the rules by April would make it impossible to hold the tribunal within its mandated three-year time frame.

"National and international judges and other officials of the ECCC must perform their duties with integrity, independence and objectivity," the statement said.

Just five organizations openly contributed to the statement: the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and the Collective for Khmer Rouge Victims. The Open Society Justice Initiative is already under fire from the ECCC for alleging that Cambodian judges must pay large portions on their salaries to corrupt government officials in order to sit on the tribunal.

"For the proper administration of justice and to achieve the larger goals of truth, justice, reparation and peace desired by every Cambodian, it is imperative that ECCC officials put aside their political affiliations and blind adherence to their own legal systems—be they Cambodian, civil, or common law legal systems—in order to adopt the rules," the statement said.

Cambodian and UN-appointed judges differ on the rights of defendants to have lawyers; which law—international or local—would have more weight in matters of interpretation; and whether international lawyers can participate. Talks between the judges have faltered on two occasions.

"The internal-rules issue has been prolonged for a while now, and we would like to push them so they will be official and in effect," Seng Theary, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said.

The United Nations and Cambodia have been working toward a trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, under whom nearly 2 million Cambodians died, since 2003, but the process has been beset by delays. Meanwhile, former leaders of the regime have either died in custody, like the "Butcher" Ta Mok, or remain free among their victims. Last week, the military courts made a final charge against Kaing Khek Iev, the Khmer Rouge torture chief known as Duch, which officials say will keep him in custody until October 2008 at the latest. He is the best candidate for a trial so far.

"I am concerned that the internal rules are not going forward," opposition party legislator Keo Remy said. "I hope that all the lawyers get those rules to proceed right away."

Human rights agencies have said the delays are a result of the interference of government officials who don't wish a legitimate tribunal to come to fruition, an allegation denied by ECCC officials.

"Local and international judges…are working very hard to make the internal rules go forward," ECCC spokesman Reach Sambath said.

Were the international judges to walk after this month's meetings, the tribunal could be scuttled, and with it the best chance for everyday Cambodians to understand better what happened to their country when it was ruled by the extreme communist movement Democratic Kampuchea, which came to be known as the Khmer Rouge.

"The adoption of internal rules that satisfy international standards and universally recognized legal principles is non-negotiable and must be accomplished by April 2007 at the latest if the ECCC is to complete its trial within the mandated three-year time frame," the rights groups said in their statement Monday. "We view the ECC as a last chance to provide justice to the Cambodian people for atrocities suffered during the period of 1975-79."