Hopes of genocide trial fade with deaths of Khmer Rouge leaders

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The ageing remnants of Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime shuffled into the limelight yesterday to honour the first wife of Pol Pot, a pivotal figure in their disastrous efforts to impose an ultra-Maoist agrarian utopia.

Their appearance was a blast from a terrible past for Cambodians as the country grapples with the problems of the present. At least nine people have already died in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this month, which the strong-arm Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is widely expected to win.

Three of Pol Pot's lieutenants turned out for the cremation of the dictator's wife, Khieu Ponnary - the so-called Sister Number One and former leader of the movement's women's wing - in the Khmer Rouge's remote jungle strong-hold of Pailin. It was a small flourish from the old guard - the former foreign minister Ieng Sary, ex-ideology guru Nuon Chea and the former nominal head of state, Khieu Samphan. They reportedly gathered to the chanting of monks, to bells, candles and incense - Buddhist rituals that the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries once reviled.

The same old men now live in comfortable retirement but they could have to answer to a tribunal into the "Killing Fields" genocide of the late 1970s, thanks to a recent long-awaited agreement on arrangements for a hearing between the Cambodia and the United Nations. Many Cambodians fear the tribunal will be a sham and that crucial witnesses will die before it convenes. Only two Khmer Rouge leaders so far are behind bars awaiting trial.

The woman whom the elderly trio came to honour died on Tuesday aged 83. She had been mentally ill for years, and was a shadow of the judge's daughter who became the first Cambodian female to graduate from high school, and eventually found herself at the centre of the Khmer Rouge elite.

According to theCambodian Daily newspaper, she was unaware of the death of Pol Pot in 1998, or of her husband's remarriage to a second, younger wife. Yet researchers into the Cambodian genocide - the death of some 1.7 million people by torture, slave labour, execution and starvation - believe that she once possessed potentially crucial evidence about her husband's rule. During the Khmer Rouge's reign she led the women's wing of the fanatical movement.

Yesterday's funeral underscored the gap between Cambodia's past - with its indescribable horrors - and the far better present. Yet it did not overshadow the genuine problems confronting the country now, from endemic corruption to chronic poverty, as it gears up to go to the polls.

More than 6 million Cambodians are eligible to vote in the 27 July elections for the National Assembly. Twenty-two political parties are taking part, although the contest is principally between the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Hun Sen, the royalist Funcinpec party and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

The heavy-smoking Hun Sen - who once boasted to a biographer that "among strong men, I am strong", and who has taken the precaution of ensuring control of Cambodia's security apparatus - fully expects to cruise to victory.