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Hollyworld: Angie's legacy in Cambodia

Did Angelina Jolie do business with a crimes-against-humanity suspect?

said in an interview at his office.

According to Sarath, while Jolie may not have known precise details about Tith’s past, he made her aware of the fact that the seller had held a senior position in the government of the communist leader Pol Pot.

“She knows that Yim Tith and everybody are the Khmer Rouge,” he said by telephone. “We talked like we have to, like Mr. Yim Tith is a big man there and he’s very important person. ... So she knows that.”

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In 2006, Sarath sparred publicly with Jolie, claiming she had reneged on a $1.5 million contract to fund his organization’s work for her. He now says Jolie also bought Tith’s land with money promised to his own aid group, Cambodian Vision in Development.

Trevor Neilson, an American celebrity philanthropic advisor, told reporters at the time that Sarath had been responsible for financial mismanagement in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” which Sarath strongly denied. Lawsuits threatened by both sides failed to materialize. (Neilson and Jolie also parted ways in 2008, according to The New York Times.)

What do Angie's dealings say about Cambodia?

Jolie’s land deal may serve as another example of the glaring impunity enjoyed by the Khmer Rouge, who left as many as 2.2 million people dead in under four years of power and are only now facing the possibility of criminal prosecution 30 years after the fall of their regime.

Opening arguments in the trial of four senior leaders are scheduled to occur next month. But for decades, Khmer Rouge leaders lived openly among the Cambodian population despite the terrific scale of their regime’s crimes. Ta Tith was apparently so at ease and undisturbed that he wound up doing business with a Hollywood movie star.

In 2009, U.N. prosecutors at a special court in Phnom Penh brought charges of crimes against humanity against Ta Tith, alleging that between 1977 and 1979 he participated in the wholesale elimination of local government officials and had control over 13 crime scenes across Cambodia.

Confidential prosecution estimates say that at these brutal prisons and execution sites between 71,000 and 83,000 people, if not more, were murdered. Ta Tith is alleged to have had effective control over an area of Cambodia where almost 600,000 people died as a result of communist party misrule.

The investigation of Ta Tith and four others sought by U.N. prosecutors at the court, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is opposed by the Cambodian government, which has sought to minimize the number of Khmer Rouge suspects prosecuted, saying this threatens to destabilize Cambodia’s fragile negotiated peace.

Siegfried Blunk, a UN judge tasked with jointly investigating the cases, abruptly resigned on Oct. 9, claiming that Cambodian officials had undermined his work with repeated public statements that the case involving Tith would not be allowed.

Blunk had until that point been widely suspected of engineering dismissals in the cases and was accused of gross judicial misconduct by organizations including Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Journalists and researchers have struggled to make contact with the reclusive Tith, who owns multiple houses across Cambodia. To all appearances, he has never been questioned by court investigators.

Are Hollywood do-gooders prone to gaffes?

According to Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, an organization which helps companies and wealthy donors plan and execute charitable endeavors, every philanthropic decision involves elements both of risk and of trust.

In places where underdevelopment may reduce organizations’ documentation or transparency “a donor needs to make a choice about how much risk they're willing to take in terms of getting involved because of concerns that may be lurking in the background,” she said, stipulating that she was not commenting on any specific case.

“Sometimes the moral hazard is too great. Other donors feel that it's worth taking the risk because of all the good they can do,” she said.

However in every relationship there will always be a degree of risk, she said. “At some level, you can’t know everything.”

But, according to Stephen Heder, a historian and former consultant at the U.N.-sponsored tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, Jolie either knew or should have known what she was getting into.

In Samlot, the former communists “have built on their power as insurgents in the 1980s and 1990s to enrich themselves while also becoming members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, proclaiming their loyalty to Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a one-time Khmer Rouge. All of this is common knowledge in Samlot and well-known throughout Cambodia,” Heder, now at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, wrote in an email.

“While all the specifics may not have been known to Jolie, she must have known or should have known that doing business in Samlot meant working with former ranking Khmer Rouge who were necessarily involved in the regime's crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Douglas Gillison writes about Cambodia and has covered the Khmer Rouge trials since 2006. His research is supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Phann Ana is an investigative reporter in Phnom Penh.