Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal charges 2 new suspects, defying prime minister's wishes

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal charged two more suspects on Tuesday, risking a confrontation with the country's prime minister, who has warned against adding new defendants.

The tribunal announced that former Khmer Rouge navy chief Meas Muth and former district commander Im Chaem have been charged in absentia with homicide and crimes against humanity, including enslavement and persecution on political and ethnic grounds.

The charges must be accepted by the court's senior judges before the two are indicted to face trial.

Some 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from starvation, disease and execution due to the extremist policies of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79. Khieu Samphan, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the communist group's late leader, Pol Pot, received life sentences last August after being found guilty of crimes against humanity. Their trial on additional charges is ongoing.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech last week that if the tribunal targeted more defendants, it could incite former Khmer Rouge members to start a civil war.

The Cambodia Daily reported that Hun Sen, speaking at an event marking the U.N.'s "Responsibility to Protect" anti-genocide initiative, said the court's investigations had "almost gone beyond the limit" and could cause former Khmer Rouge soldiers to return to the jungle to fight.

"The value of peace and the cost of human lives have to be considered," he was quoted saying.

Hun Sen has issued such warnings before, even though the Khmer Rouge were already a spent force almost two decades ago and he rules the country with an iron hand.

Hun Sen himself was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his Cambodian People's Party share a similar background. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.

Tuesday's charges were brought by the international co-investigating judge of the tribunal, which follows the same French-style legal procedures as Cambodian law. The tribunal operates under a unique system pairing international and Cambodian judges and lawyers. Critics claim that the Cambodian jurists are susceptible to political pressure, but the tribunal is structured to make it difficult for either partner to exercise a veto over proceedings.

Some of the charges against Meas Muth involve accusations of torture and killing of Vietnamese, Thais and other foreigners captured at sea or on disputed island territory. Im Chaem headed a Khmer Rouge security center in the northwest where an estimated 40,000 people died.

Both suspects had been advised in 2012 that they were officially under investigation and should seek legal counsel. Ang Udom, a lawyer for Meas Muth, said his client is in Cambodia and will not flee. Im Chaem, who lives quietly as a grandmother in a former rural stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, has been quoted in interviews as saying she does not recognize the court's authority.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said the two were charged in absentia to expedite the legal process by not seeking arrest warrants beforehand.

"Decisions on whether these cases will end up with indictments or dismissals are expected next year, and the charged persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty through a final judgment," he said in an email.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights activist and lawyer, said she doubted that Hun Sen would allow the cases to proceed to trial, likening the court's proceedings under his pressure to "a political farce that is ridiculing the memory of the dead and grinding salt into the wounds of the survivors."

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