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More than two decades after the historic carnage in Cambodia, surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are edging closer to facing criminal charges. This year Cambodia’s government finally authorized a “mixed tribunal” to hear charges of war crimes. Under the measure, a panel of nine Cambodian and international judges would apply both Cambodian and international law. In theory, the charges could range from genocide and crimes against humanity to purely domestic allegations such as murder and torture. Legal analysts say that the likeliest charge is crimes against humanity, rather than genocide, because most of the victims, like the killers, were majority Khmers; genocide charges are, however, being considered for atrocities against Muslim and Vietnamese victims. But plans for the tribunal have stalled. Although the United Nations gave preliminary approval to the hybrid tribunal, it has not given final authorization or released funds. According to some reports, the U.N. prefers a purely international tribunal, more like the ones already in place to hear cases of alleged genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Bringing charges against Khmer Rouge leaders has been delayed for decades by war, political posturing and bureaucratic foot-dragging. The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and presided over the slaughter of as many as 2 million Cambodians. A Vietnamese invasion toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The Khmer Rouge continued to wage civil war in some areas of the country until the end of 1998. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in April of that year. The United States has been the chief lobbyist in favor of an international tribunal as well as the mediator that made the mixed tribunal happen. Now, with the tribunal on the verge of creation, a group of Washington, D.C., lawyers has taken steps to make mountains of evidence into prosecutable cases. Using material collected at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, these volunteer lawyers have been gradually building cases, based on thousands of pages of transcribed interviews, execution messages and telegrams. In addition, those groups have inspected a vast catalog of photographs of victims. Last summer they issued a report based on that work, called “Seven Candidates for Prosecution.” The lawyers’ report attempted to apply international legal standards to the evidence to determine “individual responsibility” for crimes. It is a joint work of the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) at American University’s Washington College of Law and the Coalition for International Justice. These groups relied on the original documents as well as on research by Khmer Rouge scholar Stephen Heder of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Brian Tittemore, a staff attorney with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who previously worked with the WCRO, contributed most of the legal analysis to the report. Nina Bang-Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, also participated. The Documentation Center is run by Youk Chhang, a Cambodian researcher. The U.S. Department of State has been the center’s major funder, funneling $1.5 million in grants to the center through Yale University, which houses electronic copies of much of the evidence gathered in Cambodia. The contract with Yale has recently ended. Diane Orentlicher, a law professor at American University and the director of WCRO, says that she and another of the report’s contributing lawyers, Floyd Abrams of New York’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel, first got involved in Cambodia in 1984. Acting as representatives of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, they visited Khmer Rouge leaders on the Cambodia-Thailand border. Orentlicher recalls that “although we were not allowed in the interior of Cambodia, Floyd and I spent a weekend with the Khmer Rouge, including Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, at their guerrilla headquarters.” Then deputy prime minister for foreign affairs of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ieng Sary was one of the seven leaders identified in the analysis as bearing individual responsibility for crimes. The report cites speeches by Sary describing the “smashing” and “crushing” of the “enemy,” terms that Khmer Rouge scholars say refer to executions. The report also says that there is key evidence against Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two. “Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary were part of the same routine information loop that also included Pol Pot,” the report says. Both live openly in retirement in Cambodia. Susan Postlewaite is a free-lance writer based in Cairo.

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