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Cambodia trials begin amid controversy

As trials begin, questions shadow Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thirty years after the fall of the ultra-Maoist regime known as the Khmer Rouge that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s, trials are set to begin to hold a handful of its leaders accountable. Under their fanatical regime, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation and murder.

After years of delays, testimonies begin Monday in the trial of Kaing Khek Iev, the chief of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious torture center, codenamed S-21.

Iev, better know by his nom de guerre, Duch, is one of five detained senior Khmer Rouge leaders believed to be the architects of the regime's reign of terror who are still living. They face a UN-backed war crimes tribunal and could receive a maximum of life imprisonment.

Court officials went to great lengths to frame last month’s procedural hearings for Duch as an historic moment of progress for the court and for the impoverished country’s healing.

But even as some degree of official accountability is materializing, a storm of criticism and controversy surrounds the war crimes court — a hybrid structure with both international and national judges, lawyers and administrators presiding.

The Cambodian side is struggling to keep financially afloat following a funding halt after allegations arose last July that national staff, in order to secure their jobs, were forced to pay sizable portions of their salaries to their bosses.

Donor countries have provided the bulk of funds to run the tribunal, and the bitter pill of backing a court associated with corruption has become more difficult to swallow as the court’s budget, originally set at $53 million for three years, has ballooned to $170 million for five years just one-and-a-half years into the process.

Cambodian court officials have denied the allegations. A review last September by a UN oversight body has yet to be made public.

However, a report from a German parliamentary delegation, written last November after its members met with the tribunal's deputy director of administration, Knut Rosandhaug, presents a bleak picture: Referring to “grave corruption” problems, Rosandhaug said that if “the national government continues to object to following up on the corruption allegations … the United Nations should withdraw from the tribunal” or else it will risk tainting its image.