PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Judges and prosecutors from Cambodia and foreign countries were sworn in yesterday to begin the U.N.-backed judicial process to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.
It was a major step forward in the search for justice for victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, whose extremist policies in the late 1970s killed an estimated 1.7 million people. Some were executed, while others died of starvation, disease and overwork.
After decades of inaction and delays, trials are expected to start next year, although no date has been set.
“They should not have kept victims like me waiting this long,” said Chum Mey, a survivor of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where thousands were tortured and executed. “I am already 76 years old and don’t know how long I can wait.”
None of the top leaders of the 1975-79 communist regime have been held accountable for the atrocities. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, but several of his top deputies, aging and infirm, still live freely in Cambodia.
Seventeen Cambodian and 10 U.N.-appointed judicial officials were sworn in inside the Royal Palace in the capital, Phnom Penh.
“This is the milestone officially marking the beginning of a long process,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group that collects evidence of Khmer Rouge crimes.
Cambodia and the United Nations agreed in 2003 to jointly establish the tribunal.
Funding problems and drawn-out negotiations that started in 1999 led some critics to suggest that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government intentionally stalled the process to avoid embarrassing Khmer Rouge members who had become government backers.
Yesterday’s ceremony “erases the negative speculation people have had in the past that there won’t be any trial” for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, said Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the tribunal administration office.
He said prosecutors will move into their offices on Monday, “a sign the actual trials will start very soon.” They will be holding a series of workshops to draw up strategy for convening the trials, he said.
Nuon Chea, who had been the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue, said he would go before the tribunal if called. As one of the top leaders, he is a likely target for prosecution.
“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 an interview with the Associated Press in the northwestern 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.
Former military chief Ta Mok is being held for war crimes and crimes against internationally protected people, while Kaing Khek Iev, also known as Duch — who headed the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh — has been charged with crimes against humanity. Both men face life imprisonment if convicted.