U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made an emotional appeal Thursday for Cambodia to send a message to the world that the Khmer Rouge's crimes against humanity will not go unpunished.
Ban's comments came after a tour of the Khmer Rouge's main prison and torture center during a visit to Cambodia that was marked by heated words from the country's leader and a crackdown on protesters, who were beaten by riot police, a rights group said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday ordered Ban to shut down the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia and remove the current envoy.
Hun Sen also told Ban that Cambodia will not allow the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal to expand the scope of its trials to include former low-ranking officers of the regime.
The 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime was blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.
"Thirty years have passed. Yet here, in this tragic place, we still hear the echoes. The cries of human misery. The agony," Ban said at the infamous S-21 prison where as many as 16,000 people were tortured before being executed. "I will never forget my visit here today. In this place of horror, ladies and gentlemen, let the human spirit triumph. Words cannot do justice. But we can."
Ban later told The Associated Press that he had emphasized to Hun Sen the need for the government to "provide full cooperation and fully respect the independence of the court." He said the leader gave assurances for both.
The tribunal closed its first case in July when it convicted the Khmer Rouge's chief jailer and head of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A second trial is expected to start next year for the four top surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
Hun Sen has said the trials will stop there, despite U.N. wishes to bring lower-ranking officers to justice for murder, torture and other crimes. The U.N. says progress has been blocked by political interference from Cambodian officials who oppose more prosecutions.
"We know it is difficult to relive this terrible chapter in your history," Ban said. "But I want you to know, your courage sends a powerful message to the world _ that there can be no impunity. That crimes of humanity shall not go unpunished."
Critics accuse the Cambodian leader of trying to limit the tribunal's scope to prevent his political allies from being indicted. Hun Sen once served as a Khmer Rouge officer and many of his main allies are also former members of the group.
He also objects to the presence of U.N. human rights envoys, who tend to criticize the government's human rights record.
"The office for U.N. human rights in Cambodia has to be shut down," government spokesman Khieu Kanharith quoted Hun Sen as telling Ban during a two-hour meeting Wednesday.
Hun Sen accused the U.N. rights envoy, Christophe Peschoux, of "not working on human rights issues with the government but working as a spokesman for the opposition," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters.
Ban has not commented publicly on Hun Sen's demands, but told the AP Thursday: "I am convinced that we will continue to work here in Cambodia. That's my understanding after further meetings with the prime minister and the foreign minister."
Human Rights Watch's Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said the warning "appears to be part of Hun Sen's master plan to ensure total impunity for himself and consolidate authoritarian power."
Ban apparently did not witness the beating of protesters, which a Cambodian rights group said occurred as he visited a hospital. One of them was beaten unconscious and suffered a severe head wound, according to LICADHO. The group of a few dozen protesters had wanted to hand Ban a petition about their forced eviction from land that was allegedly taken by a politician to be used for a luxury building. The practice of "land grabbing" by government-connected figures is common in Cambodia.
The beating "is a good indicator of how little thought this government gives to its international standing and to human rights," LICADHO said in a statement.
Khieu Kanharith said he had not been informed of any protest and had no comment.
Associated Press writer Vijay Joshi contributed to this report.