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Hun Sen's Cambodia

After 40 years, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge leaders face genocide verdict

Hun Sen government's interference and lengthy court process widely criticized

A Buddhist monk stands next to a glass case containing 5,000 human skulls belonging to Khmer Rouge victims at the Choeung Ek memorial in Phnom Penh.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- The Khmer Rouge tribunal will on Friday announce whether two surviving leaders of the Pol Pot regime are guilty of genocide -- a verdict that many expect will deliver some long-awaited justice for the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians who were executed or died from disease, overwork or starvation between 1975 and 1979.

While the judgment is seen as a landmark moment for the Southeast Asian nation, the fact that it has been almost 40 years since the Khmer Rouge fell from power has drawn widespread criticism of a judicial process plagued by delays.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is also accused of repeatedly trying to influence the judges in a bid to stop the court from looking into mid-ranking cadres -- including the prime minister himself.

Nuon Chea, the 92-year-old former deputy to Pol Pot, and the regime's head of state, Khieu Samphan, 87, are on trial for genocide against Cambodia's Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese among other crimes against humanity relating to prisons, worksites, forced marriages and sexual violence.

The pair were already sentenced to life in 2014 for crimes against humanity in a first trial that focused largely on the forced evacuation of Cambodia's urban areas as the Khmer Rouge embarked on its extreme agrarian revolution.

For many Cambodians, interest in the tribunal -- officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia -- has waned considerably since the earlier trial.

"That's not because people don't believe in justice, but because the judgment in 2014 was sufficient as they were put in jail for their lifetime," said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. "The November 16 judgment is rather a historical moment for Cambodia in [the] eyes of the international community, [acknowledging] that a genocide took place in Cambodia."

From its inception, the court has been plagued by accusations that the government has been influencing its Cambodian judges. The tribunal is a unique and uncomfortable hybrid of Cambodian and international judges who must reach agreement on decisions.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam and helped overthrow the Pol Pot regime in 1979, has repeatedly rejected the idea of any new trials, arguing that such a move could lead to civil war.

Local judges and prosecutors are seen as being under the influence of the government, especially in ongoing investigations into mid-ranking former Khmer Rouge.

In August, the tribunal's international investigating judge called for genocide charges against Ao An, deputy secretary of the the regime's Central Zone. The court's Cambodian counterpart called for the case to be dismissed.

Further trials could lead to the "greatest fears" of Hun Sen and National Assembly president Heng Samrin, said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division and who took part in talks to establish the tribunal while working for the UN in Cambodia during the 1990s. "If they expand it beyond the original list of household name Khmer Rouge leaders they would be able to go pretty quickly into the CPP ranks -- people like Heng Samrin and Hun Sen himself," he said, in reference to the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Adams cited a 2015 HRW report, "30 Years of Hun Sen," which accused the prime minister of being involved in a massacre of Cham Muslims in 1975 after they launched a violent rebellion in the east. Hun Sen has denied the claims.

"I think Hun Sen has a guilty conscience and there are a lot of senior CPP officials who were very young men then who probably did some terrible things," Adams said.

Hun Sen may well be eager to avoid becoming an example by the court of proper judicial process in Cambodia, said Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank and who was born under the Khmer Rouge regime. However, he said Hun Sen could also be right that neither he nor the Cambodian people want the tribunal "dragging on for another 10 years."

"Maybe people are fed up that Cambodia has been referred to as 'the killing fields' for the last 40 years. Maybe Hun Sen is understanding his public a bit better, and I think he might get Cambodian support by saying: 'Let's close this chapter and move on.'"

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