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UN cheers Khmer Rouge trial progress


Michelle Lee, Deputy Director of the UN Khmer Rouge Trial delegation, left, and Sean Visoth, Administrative Director of the Extraordinary Chambers, at a news conference on December 6.

B rushing past questions concerning Cambodia's budget shortfall, and spending little time disarming inquiries into other potential pitfalls, the United Nations Khmer Rouge Trial (KRT) delegation ended its visit with a roaring affirmation that the trial process has taken tangible steps forward, and would continue to progress until the long-awaited trial becomes a reality.

"This week has gone very well; I'm satisfied," said UN KRT delegation Deputy Director Michelle Lee. "I understand that people are disappointed by the many years of delay, but believe it or not - we're here. There is no turning back - we're here now and we're here to stay."

It was announced this week that a facility in Kandal province had been selected for the UN team's headquarters, and that the group would begin operations there in February 2006. The UN also introduced its seven-member leadership team and unveiled a program of Regional Outreach Forums launched with a $36,000 grant from the Australian government.

Quite a dizzying week for observers accustomed to the generally glacial pace at which the trial had been proceeding since the 2003 agreement between the UN and the government, and the 1997 request by the RGC for UN assistance to conduct a trial.

"We're closer than we've ever been before," said Dr Helen Jarvis, an adviser to the Council of Ministers who has been involved in the trial process for over six years. "We have gone from planning into establishing."

Throughout the December 6-16 visit, senior delegates maintained unwavering - although never specifically explained - optimism about the long-stalled trial and declared that logistics would begin despite the government's shortfall of funding - a matter of nearly $11 million that would ostensibly delay any trial preparations.

"Although we still have the shortfall of $10.8 million on the Cambodian side, I can say that with the arrival of Michelle Lee we are highly optimistic," said Sean Visoth, administrative director of the Extraordinary Chambers, in response to repeated questions from the media regarding the shortfall. "We knew there would be challenges. The point is that we are committed. The process is moving on."

At no time did the delegation directly address how the trial would develop if the Cambodian government's $10.8 million budget could not be secured.

In spite of this, the stance of the delegation was so cocksure - and the tone of its statements so confident - that should a trial fail to materialize, the UN would certainly appear less than credible in retrospect.

But that will remain to be seen.

For now, Cambodians and international observers can watch the intriguing transformation of a complex legal concept into a functioning reality - one complete with security guards, computer systems and access for the handicapped.

Although Visoth made the opening remarks and handled the bulk of questioning at two separate news conferences, it was clear that Lee would be taking the project's point position. Lee, a United States-educated Chinese national who joined the UN in 1974, has worked on peacekeeping missions in Sarajevo, Kashmir and Sierra Leone.

"This trial is so important," Lee said. "The message is that impunity should not remain unchallenged - justice delayed doesn't mean justice denied. We believe that international justice can lead to peace and stability. We hope this process will contribute to democratic reform and have an effect on the region."

In an interview with the Post, Lee came across as professional and humorous. She extended both solemn reverence for the project's importance and quips about UN procedures.

"I feel very encouraged," she said. "It doesn't mean I don't think there will be hurdles but we're ready for the challenge - the whole team is. Lots of the [members of the delegation] have high positions and were willing to take pay cuts to take part in this historic and mournful task. We're making history."

UN Budget and Finance Chief Linda Ryan explained that although the UN's portion of the total $56.3 million budget - roughly $43 million - is entirely separate than the budget expected to be put forth by the government, there will be some necessary coordination.

"Our budget is an evolving document," Ryan said. "We'll be working hand-in-hand with the Royal Government of Cambodia, hopefully."

Jarvis, who read a prepared statement in halting but proficient Khmer, said that although the $10.8 million shortfall was the trial's "biggest challenge" it was no longer considered a deal-breaker.

"We're optimistic. Very optimistic," Jarvis said. "Our assumption is that the $10.8 million is not going to be the thing that holds us up."

A member of the Cambodian Task Force Delegation said it was "likely" that Jarvis would be named spokesperson for the KR trial.

News of the trial's progress was greeted with varying opinions by individuals affected by the regime. Sos Samann, who identified himself as former Khmer Rouge "spy," was especially candid with the Post.

"I am very happy to hear that there will be a real Khmer Rouge Trial," Samann said. "It will bring revenge for my family. The punishment must be execution. Just a life sentence will not be fair. They killed millions of people.

"My wife and I will go and see the trial with our own eyes," he added.

But So Socheat, wife of former Democratic Kampuchea head-of-state Khieu Samphan, greeted the news with a shrug.

"I have never thought about whether they'll have the [Khmer Rouge Trial] or not," she said. "I don't care."



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