PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The U.N.-backed tribunal trying members of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge regime for genocide and other crimes said it formally charged the group's navy commander, Meas Muth, on Monday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has opposed any expansion of the trial, and Cambodian police had refused to arrest Meas Muth.
The tribunal said Meas Muth appeared voluntarily to hear the charges against him. The action is a step forward in the process of bringing mid-level Khmer Rouge cadres to justice. The ultra-communist group is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians while it held power in 1975-79, though execution, starvation and inadequate medical care as it sought to herd virtually the entire population into vast rural communes.
The tribunal operates under a system that pairs international and Cambodian judges, prosecutors and lawyers. Three defendants have been found guilty in earlier trials, but Cambodian officials have not cooperated in prosecuting new suspects.
The charges against Meas Muth include homicide, genocide, crimes against humanity and other offenses. He is the sole target so far of what is called Case 003. Three other people — Ao An, Im Chaem and Yim Tith — have been charged in Case 004.
However, in all those cases only the international prosecutor has issued indictments, and his Cambodian counterpart has refused to agree. Cambodian police, who would normally deliver the summonses and arrest warrants, have not done so. The effect is to leave the cases in limbo, though the appearance of Meas Muth to hear his charges suggests some progress.
Last year the tribunal gave life sentences to Khieu Samphan, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, the right-hand man of the group's late leader, Pol Pot, after finding them guilty of crimes against humanity. Their trial on additional charges, including genocide, is ongoing. Earlier, the court convicted the commandant of a torture center where more than 15,000 people were held before being put to death.
Hun Sen has repeatedly said that if the tribunal targets more defendants, it could incite former Khmer Rouge members to start a civil war. Aside from his political allies, few people share his belief, since the Khmer Rouge became a spent force almost two decades ago.
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 similar backgrounds. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.