An international legal watchdog has criticized the selection of Cambodian court officials for an upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal and says more is needed to find justice for the victims of the "Killing Fields" regime.
The New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative expressed alarm after King Norodom Sihamoni gave final approval at the weekend to a list of 30 Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors who will try former Khmer Rouge leaders.
"The opaque nature of the Cambodian government's selection process is a cause for concern," said James Goldston, Open Society's executive director, adding that physical improvements to the court's premises were also needed before work could start.
"The court still has many needs -- from translation services to criminal investigators -- before the Cambodian people can be assured of seeing justice after nearly 30 years of waiting," he said in a statement received yesterday.
Up to 2 million people died of starvation, overwork and from execution as the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a vast collective farm in their drive for an agrarian utopia from 1975 to 1979.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998. So far only two former regime leaders have been jailed on genocide charges, while others -- including Pol Pot's top deputy Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary -- live freely in Cambodia.
All are elderly and suffering from poor health, raising concerns that they might die before they can be tried.
After years of wrangling, the UN and Cambodia agreed in 2003 to a mixed tribunal that its backers hope will not be undermined by Cambodia's notoriously weak judiciary.
Both the UN and the Cambodian government say the tribunal could open in the middle of this year, with the trial phase starting in the middle of next year.
Cambodia yesterday officially announced the names of the 17 Cambodian and 13 UN-appointed tribunal officers.
The foreign judges and pros-ecutors appear to come mostly from Western countries, although there is one each from Japan and Sri Lanka.
Cambodia's selections draw mostly from Phnom Penh's municipal, appeals and military courts, and several were reportedly educated in the former Soviet Union.
Despite assurances from Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana that the Cambodian officials are up to the job, concerns remain over their selection and credentials.
"The Cambodian personnel ... were appointed ... in a manner that did not engage either the UN or civil society," Goldston said.
Several of Cambodia's tribunal judges have been involved in controversial verdicts, including last year's widely condemned sentencing of an opposition lawmaker to prison for allegedly trying to topple the government.
"There are serious concerns about a few of the names on grounds of a past record of political bias, incompetence and/or corruption," Goldston said in an e-mail.
Cambodia's highest legal body, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, approved the officials last week in what was hailed as a major step forward for the long-stalled tribunal.
Ang Vong Vathana said yesterday that the king had signed a royal decree finalizing the list, and that a tribunal for those responsible for one of the 20th century's worst genocides would likely start next month.
"We are pleased with his majesty's commitment to proceed with this work quickly," tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said.