- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the specter of the murderous regime still haunted Cambodia on Wednesday as victims remembered the countless dead and the country prepared to finally try the movement’s leaders.

More than 40,000 people jammed Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for speeches and a parade to mark the day Vietnamese troops entered the capital to oust the ultra-communists from power.

“On January 7, my second life began,” said a 59-year-old farmer whose father and sister died of starvation under the Khmer Rouge. “I want to see Khmer Rouge leaders prosecuted as soon as possible because they are getting old now.”

She was one of millions who endured what many survivors said was “hell on Earth.”

Phnom Penh, the capital, was emptied at gunpoint; its citizens forced to work in vast slave labor camps on starvation rations and under the constant threat of execution. Religion, marriages not approved by the state, money and almost all entertainment were banned.

When it was over, 1.7 million or more Cambodians had perished during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule.

But none of the surviving leaders has yet faced justice.

One of the accused - Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who headed the Khmer Rouge’s largest torture center - will probably take the stand in March at a U.N.-backed tribunal, said co-prosecutor Robert Petit, adding that the trial is expected to take three to four months.

But the other four, all of them aging and ailing, probably won’t be tried until 2010 or later.

“Although in the past three decades Cambodia has made great progress, difficulties that are left by war and genocide have been far reaching and are yet to be completely removed,” Senate President Chea Sim said in the keynote speech at the stadium.

He cited mental problems, a culture of violence and lack of self-confidence as legacies of the Khmer Rouge.

“We needed 30 years to restore the country because of the wrongful leadership of the [Khmer Rouge] leaders,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told the Associated Press.

As thousands of victims listened, he recalled the three years, eight months and 20 days when Cambodians were “robbed of their rights, freedom and were forced to be slaves in face of grisly punishments and killing.”

Even the stadium had been one of the execution grounds, as Khmer Rouge victors against the U.S.-backed government entered Phnom Penh in 1975 to begin their reign of terror.

Although this year’s celebration - dubbed “Victory over Genocide” - was one of the largest ever, Mr. Sim, who also heads the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, made no mention of the tribunal.

The Cambodian government, whose top leaders served in Khmer Rouge ranks before defecting, has been accused of foot-dragging on the trial.

The country’s all-powerful trio who stood on a platform high up in the stadium - Mr. Sim, Prime Minister Hun Sen and lower house of Parliament President Heng Samrin - were all with the Khmer Rouge before joining the government formed by the Vietnamese who invaded the country.

“After 30 years, no one has been tried, convicted or sentenced for the crimes of one of the bloodiest regimes of the 20th century,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday.

“This is no accident. For more than a decade, China and the United States blocked efforts at accountability, and for the past decade Hun Sen has done his best to thwart justice,” it said.

China was a key supporter of the Khmer Rouge and then the United States backed a post-1979 insurgency, which included Khmer Rouge guerrillas who fought the Vietnamese-installed government that succeeded them in Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge finally fell apart in 1998 after the death of its paramount leader Pol Pot.

His surviving lieutenants are all old and aging and could well die before they take the stand, as many fear.

The youngest, 65-year-old Duch, faces charges of torture, homicide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

He headed Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison, now a grisly museum attracting thousands of foreign tourists as well as Cambodians.

About 16,000 men, women and children are believed to have been held at S-21, and only 14 are thought to have survived ordeals that included medieval-like tortures to extract “confessions,” followed by executions and burials in mass graves outside Phnom Penh.

Others in detention facing trial are Khieu Samphan, the group’s former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement’s chief ideologue.

As the trial looms, the documentation on Khmer Rouge atrocities continues to pile up as victims offer papers, photographs and oral testimony.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Wednesday that he had just returned from Vietnam where officials gave him copies of 20 films shot by the Vietnamese as they entered Phnom Penh.

The footage includes scenes at an abandoned Khmer Rouge prison, with chickens pecking at the corpses of prisoners.

The non-governmental center has accumulated about 1 million documents related the Khmer Rouge era, passing them on to the tribunal, which is composed of both foreign and Cambodian judges.

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