Khmer Rouge atrocities trial law clears legislative hurdle


Cambodia’s Constitutional Council approved controversial legislation on Tuesday allowing the creation of a court to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge for their ’70s “killing fields” reign of terror.

King Norodom Sihanouk is expected to sign the legislation into law within the next few days, a top official said, but it still needs U.N. approval.

“According to the procedure, the law is now to be sent back to the government and the government sends it to the king for approval,” Sok An, who is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cabinet chief, told Reuters by telephone.

“It will not take long (for the king to sign), only a few days,” he said. “After the king signs, the government will then start work with the United Nations on the trial.”

Under the legislation, foreign and local judges will try defendants for atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979 when an estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, forced labor and execution.

No member of the communist regime has yet stood trial for offenses which turned the country into one giant concentration camp.

“We spent more than two hours debating thoroughly the draft law passed by the National Assembly and the Senate,” said Bin Chhin, president of the nine-member council.

“We have decided that the law is constitutional.”

Parliament’s upper and lower houses passed the law in July.

Youk Chhang, Cambodia’s leading genocide researcher, told Reuters on Tuesday he welcomed the council’s decision, but said he would wait for the king’s signature before celebrating.

“When the law is finalized by the king, only then will it be a victory, and the beginning of a search for justice,” Youk Chang said.

It was unclear when the king would sign the law.

A Khmer Rouge trial is a divisive issue in Cambodia, where decades of civil war ended only in 1998 with the defection of the last Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Cambodia first asked the United Nations to help set up a Khmer Rouge trial in 1997 but agreement has been difficult with both sides saying they should be in control.

Cambodia finally struck a deal last year with the U.N. on a compromise that would involve holding trials in Cambodia with both local and U.N.-appointed judges.