Q+A: The Khmer Rouge tribunal

By Darren Schuettler

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia's "Killing Fields" tribunal begins its first trial of a senior Pol Pot cadre on Tuesday, 30 years after the fall of the ultra-Maoist regime blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity while chief of the S-21 torture centre, where at least 14,000 died from 1975-79.

Now a Christian, Duch has confessed to atrocities, but insists he was acting under orders. His testimony is expected to be vital to securing the conviction of other senior cadres.

Below are some questions and answers about the tribunal:

Q: Why has it taken so long for the trials to start?

A: Cambodia asked the United Nations and the international community to help set up a tribunal more than a decade ago, but the government sought to retain control of the court. The plan languished for years, with draft laws flying back and forth.

The U.N. gave the go-ahead for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the joint tribunal is known, in 2005.

However, the three-year, $56.3 million (39.5 million pound) court was delayed by bail hearings, appeals and pre-trial machinations. The tribunal has asked donors for a $143 million budget to run until 2010, and raised about $100 million so far.

Q: How does the tribunal work?

A: Experts say the large government and domestic participation in the tribunal will make it a closely-watched "experiment in international justice".

Conducted under a modified form of Cambodia's French-based judicial system, domestic and foreign judges and prosecutors will work jointly to try to guarantee the courts' independence.

Due to Cambodia's erratic and politicised judiciary, the court will seek to ensure no decision can be taken without support from both sides.

The trial chamber of three Cambodian and two foreign judges requires four to agree on a verdict. The seven-judge appeal court -- comprising four Cambodians and three foreigners, must have at least five judges in agreement.

Advocates hope the tribunal will serve as a model of professionalism for the country's judiciary. But critics say its integrity is already threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference, which the government has denied.

Q: Who has been charged so far?

A: Duch is among five ageing and infirm senior cadres facing various charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Tuesday marks the formal start of the trial, but substantive arguments are only expected in March and a verdict in September.

Trial dates have not been set for ex-president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, and "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea. Pol Pot died in 1998.

If convicted, the five could face life in prison.

Q: Will anyone else be investigated?

A: Cambodia's prosecutor opposed a bid by her foreign counterpart to go after six more suspects, citing the need for national reconciliation. Critics saw a political move to stop the court from digging too deep and perhaps unearthing secrets about some former Khmer Rouge figures in the government.

The government denies meddling and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has said he supports the tribunal. There is no evidence linking him to any atrocities.

More broadly, some critics say the role of the United States and China in supporting Pol Pot's regime should also be probed.

Q: How will it affect Cambodians?

A: Survivors and other civil parties will be allowed to ask questions and file motions through their lawyers. More than 90 parties are expected to be approved by the courts.

Survivors hope the trials will bring closure to their grief, and mark a new era of peace and justice. They also hope it will educate young Cambodians about an era they know little about. More than half the country's 14 million people were born after Pol Pot was ousted in 1979.

Despite an education campaign, a recent survey found 85 percent of respondents "had little or no knowledge" of the tribunal, although court officials disputed its findings.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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