Judges and prosecutors from Cambodia and foreign countries were today sworn in to begin the UN-backed judicial process to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The swearing-in was a major step forward in the process of seeking justice for the victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, whose extremist policies when they held power in the late 1970s are estimated to have taken 1.7 million lives.
Trials are expected to start in 2007, although no date has been set.
The swearing-in ceremony for 17 Cambodian and 10 UN-appointed judicial officials took place inside the Royal Palace in the capital Phnom Penh.
Two other foreign judicial officials will arrive in Cambodia at a later date, said Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the tribunal administration office.
Today’s event “erases the negative speculation people have had in the past that there won’t be any trial” for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, he said.
One of those leaders, chief ideologue Nuon Chea, said he would go before the tribunal if called in order to clarify the past.
“I will be glad to go so that people in my country and other countries will know the truth of what happened. Whatever they ask, I will tell them,” he said in the north-western town of Pailin, where he lives with other former top Khmer Rouge leaders.
“I have responsibility for what happened, not for the killing but for not being able to protect my own people,” he said.
The ceremony was observed by Kong Sam Ol, a Cambodian deputy prime minister for the Royal Palace, and Nicholas Michel, a representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The tribunal offices were inaugurated early this year after Cambodia and the UN agreed in 2003 to jointly establish the tribunal.
Drawn-out negotiations that started in 1999 and funding problems have led some critics to suggest that prime minister Hun Sen’s government has intentionally stalled the court process to avoid embarrassing Khmer Rouge members who had become government backers.
The victims of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime died of starvation, disease, overwork and execution.
The movement collapsed in 1999, but none of its top leaders have been held accountable for the atrocities. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998. Several of his top deputies, ageing and infirm, still live freely in Cambodia.
As the tribunal process moved ahead, jailed former Khmer Rouge army commander Ta Mok, 82, remained in hospital being treated for various illnesses.
The other detained Khmer Rouge official is Kaing Khek Iev, alias Duch, who headed the former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where thousands were tortured and executed.
Reach Sambath said the judicial officials would be holding a series of workshops to draw up strategy for convening the trials.
The prosecutors will move into their offices July 10, he said, adding “this is a sign the actual trials will start very soon”.
But Chum Mey, a survivor of the S-21 prison, complained that the proceedings were part of a “jerky and slow” journey to create the tribunal.
“They should not have kept victims like me waiting this long,” he said. “I am already 76 years old and don’t know how long I can wait to see justice.”