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The tribunal set up to try key leaders of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime has run into trouble. During just four years in power, from 1975 to '79, the Maoist Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million people through execution, torture, starvation and disease.

Cambodia's cities were emptied, their residents forced to labor in the fields as part of an effort to create an agrarian utopia. After a decade of negotiation, the joint U.N.-Cambodian court was set up. Now as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Phnom Penh, its future is uncertain.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: After nearly 30 years of waiting, few expected this process to go smoothly. But it actually did - for a few months, anyway - after the court was officially convened in July.

Now, said the chief U.N. prosecutor Robert Petit, reality has set in.

Mr. ROBERT PETIT (Chief Prosecutor, United Nations): We have encountered serious problems, I think, between national colleagues and the international colleagues in reaching an understanding about what this tribunal is and what it isn't and how it should work.

SULLIVAN: The major sticking points appear to be the scope of the indictments and what role foreign lawyers will play in defending the accused. If these issues aren't resolved in the next few weeks, some court officials say there is a 50-50 chance the U.N. could pack up and leave. Prosecutor Petit isn't one to give odds and says he's reasonably confident the problems can be solved. But...

Mr. PETIT: I'm very conscious of what my mandate is. It's to prosecute the senior leaders and those most responsible in the timeframe with the resources and the reality that I have to make it a credible process to bring a measure of justice to the people here. If we can't have that, then yes, some of us will not participate in something that we cannot be sure meets a reasonable level of competency.

SULLIVAN: Some observers say the impasse is a result of the Cambodian government's desire to control - or at least limit - the scope of the investigation and the number of indictments in a country where political interference in the courts is common. Joseph Mussomeli is the U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh.

Ambassador JOSEPH MUSSOMELI (United States Ambassador to Cambodia): They're very nervous about actually having judges here who aren't intimidated, who cannot be bribed, who cannot be convinced that they should do things in a certain way. They're used to being in control, and the prosecutor moved very quickly, very efficiently, very effectively, and this has given them some pause and some concern.

SULLIVAN: Sara Colm is senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Phnom Penh. She says some in the current government have reason to be concerned, given their past association with the Khmer Rouge.

Ms. SARA COLM (Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch): There was an assumption that only a handful of people would be prosecuted and that the more wide a net that is cast, the more possibilities for implicating or embarrassing high officials in the current government.

Now these officials themselves may not be prosecuted, but there could be elements that come out in the trials that could be quite embarrassing or damaging to their own political careers.

SULLIVAN: Questions about the competence and independence of the judges on the Cambodian side were highlighted earlier this month after allegations some are kicking back a portion of their salaries to the government in exchange for their positions.

Cambodia's information minister, Khieu Kanharith, rejects these allegations. He's also tired of critics' charges that the government has stacked the court with judges loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Even if it's true, he says, so what?

Mr. KHIEU KANHARITH (Information Minister, Cambodia): (unintelligible) is not the problem, the problem whether they implement the law or not - the rule of law. Let them start the job. After that, you will see if they implement the rule of law or not.

SULLIVAN: U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, like the U.N. prosecutor Robert Petit, says he's optimistic that the current problems can and should be resolved, but not, Mussomeli says, papered over.

Ambassador MUSSOMELI: We will not in any way support or endorse or even stand by and be silent if the tribunal is just a farce. That is disrespectful to the 2 million who were murdered, and it's not healthy or in any way useful to the improvement of this country.

(Soundbite of construction machines)

SULLIVAN: Just outside the capital, the courtroom is nearly completed. Workers are now racing to finish an eight-cell detention center out back to house the accused once indictments are announced. Vann Nath knows a lot about detention centers. He is one of only a half-dozen survivors of the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng Prison, now a popular tourist destination.

Mr. VANN NATH (Survivor, Tuol Sleng Prison): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Today, Vann Nath is a successful painter and restaurateur. His paintings and his journal of his time in prison have made him a celebrity of sorts, a fame he says he would gladly trade for the return of his family and friends killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Mr. NATH: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Thirty years on, he says, he still sees some of his jailers walking freely on the streets of Phnom Penh. Neither they nor any of the Khmer Rouge leadership has ever been punished, and Vann Nath doubts they ever will be. For a long time, he says, I hoped that the tribunal would happen, but now I've pretty much given up on the idea. And if it doesn't happen, he says, we Cambodians have only ourselves to blame. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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