Khmer Rouge chief 'flees genocide trial'

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One of the architects of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed some two million Cambodians has been spotted leaving his home in a truck packed with household goods, prompting a denial from his children that he is "running away" from a UN-backed tribunal.

Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, was seen leaving his home in northwestern Cambodia on Tuesday, a day after prosecutors began collecting evidence for the long-awaited tribunal of the Khmer Rouge's former leaders.

Khieu Samphan is approaching 75 and said to be in frail health. He is expected to be among those tried for crimes against humanity in the course of the tribunal, which is expected to last five years.

When the trial begins next year, the first in the dock will be the high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials Ta Mok and Khaing Khev Iek - known as Duch and who ran Phnom Penh's main detention centre, S21. Both are in prison in Phnom Penh. Pol Pot's "Brother Number Two", Nuon Chea; the former foreign minister Ieng Sary; and Mr Khieu live freely in Cambodia. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's fanatical leader, died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan's daughter Rattana would not say why her father had left but said he and his wife had arrived in Battambang, about 50 miles from their home in Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold. "He's not running anywhere," Khieu Rattana said. "He has no remorse in his life because he believes he has done everything for the nation."

In a conflicting statement, the couple's son said his parents were staying with him in Anlong Veng, a one-time Khmer Rouge hideout on the Thai border. Khieu Samphan departure is indicative of the apprehension surrounding the long-awaited tribunal, aimed at prosecuting leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for the crimes committed during its rule from 1975 to 1979. Whether justice will be achieved is difficult to predict. Most of the officials to be tried are ageing.

While some are reluctant to stand trial, others are eager to tell their story. "I will be glad to go, so that people in my country and other countries will know the truth of what happened. Whatever they ask, I will tell them," Nuon Chea said this week.

It has taken nine years of negotiations to reach a point at which the country is ready to bring the regime to justice, markedly because the government has not wanted the tribunal to threaten many of its senior officials who are former members of the Khmer Rouge, including the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who is not directly implicated in the atrocities.

Last week, 17 Cambodian and 10 UN-appointed judges were sworn in in the Cambodian capital. For most the country, the trial, expected to begin next year, cannot come soon enough. "We need to make sense of our history before we can move on and heal, and documenting and understanding our shared experiences is a small step in that direction." Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said. Establishing a principle of accountability in Cambodia has been difficult; most of the Khmer Rouge officials who are still alive say they had no choice. And so for too long the country has buried the crimes of the regime with the skeletons of the killing fields. In 1999, Hun Sen said the only way to move forward was to "dig a hole, and bury the past".

Six years on, Cambodia is as ready to face its past as it is ever going to be. Mr Chhang said: "The perpetrators need a trial most of all. It will help them to understand what they did."