Victims of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge fear derailment of trials

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- When a sprawling courthouse was inaugurated on the outskirts of this capital last year, it was largely welcomed by Cambodians, who expressed hope that one day the leaders of the Khmer Rouge would sit inside, squirm in the docks and face comeuppance for overseeing the brutal deaths of as many as 1.7 million people a quarter-century ago.

Today, however, the hopes of many Khmer Rouge victims have turned to frustrations. Rather than providing a promised airing of truth, the proceedings have become mired in a debate over legal standards that has delayed indictments and pushed back the start of the trials by months. Some observers now fear the dispute could derail the trials altogether.

At stake is the best chance for a reckoning of a regime that presided over the systematic mass murder of its own people with a fervor still little understood. On a radical communist crusade to create a peasant society free from foreign influence, the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 executed, tortured and starved to death Cambodians -- particularly the educated, moneyed and devout.

Last Friday, a multinational tribunal of Cambodian and United Nations-appointed judges, prosecutors and defenders said it had failed to resolve all of its differences over the adoption of internationally accepted legal procedures for the trials.

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