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Rights Leader: Tribunal Talks Cause for Hope, Concern

The head of a leading rights group told VOA listeners Monday that, while she was increasingly hopeful jurists could settle rules governing a Khmer Rouge tribunal, key sticking points remained that could spoil it altogether.

Kek Galabru, president and founder of Licadho, told listeners of "Hello VOA," a semiweekly call-in show, that she was keeping close tabs on a 10-day series of meetings that began last week and she had been on the phone with participants over the weekend.

What she was hearing from judges and prosecutors, collectively called jurists, gave her hope, she said, but she was still concerned about protection of witnesses, the rights of the accused and the independence of the pre-trial chamber, a critical component of the tribunal.

International and Cambodian jurists are meeting for the third time since November to mend differences over "internal rules," which govern the actual functioning of a tribunal. Observers say failure to find common ground after these meetings will ruin the tribunal because either it will exceed its three-year mandate or the UN-appointed jurists will walk away from the process.

"One of the foreign jurists told me that there cannot be a Khmer Rouge tribunal if the internal rules cannot be drafted," Kek Galabru said.

So far, the meetings were bringing results, and that was positive, she said, but the rights of witnesses should be protected as they had in other fully independent war crimes tribunals, such as those examining killings in Yugoslavia or Rwanda.

"There was a good system to protect the defendants and the victims in [Yugoslavian and Rwandan] courts, because they tried to cover up the faces and change the voices so no one would take revenge afterward," she said.

So far, the internal rules in the Cambodian joint tribunal fail to protect victims and defendants sufficiently, she said.

Defendants should have the right to appoint their own lawyers, something that is not yet agreed on, she said.

"The international courts respect the right of the defendants to choose a lawyer freely," she said, adding that defenders should have the same resources as prosecutors. "There must be a balance between the plaintiff and the defendant."

She also warned that a delayed trial would mean delayed justice, echoing concerns of others that former leaders of the destructive Khmer Rouge regime will die before going to trial for the deaths of 2 million of their countrymen.

"If now the meeting just goes on without results, the Khmer Rouge leaders will die one by one," Kek Galabru said, "and we don't know then, who are we going to try?"