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Ex-Khmer Rouge concedes genocide

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- A former Khmer Rouge leader expected to face a UN tribunal acknowledged yesterday there is "no more doubt left" that his regime committed genocide. It was the first public admission of the communist organization's collective guilt.


Khieu Smaphan's surprising statement in an interview is a major step in the long overdue effort to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during the ultraleftist group's 1975-79 rule.

Many of the victims were executed; the rest died of starvation, disease, and overwork in the Khmer Rouge's attempt to create an agrarian utopia. Now, with an agreement on a tribunal earlier this month between UN and Cambodian officials, former Khmer Rouge leaders may soon face charges for the first time.

Khieu Samphan, 72, a former head of state and one of the few top Khmer Rouge leaders still alive, is certain to be indicted. Speaking by telephone from his home, he apparently hoped to begin giving his version of Cambodia's bloody history before his likely prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity.

He insisted he never ordered any killings -- and contended that he learned only two months ago about the extent of the Khmer Rouge's crimes from a documentary.

"Everything has to go the trial's way now, and there's no other way," he said. "I have to prepare myself not to let the time pass away. But I also want the public to understand about me, too. I was not involved in any killings."

Until yesterday, none of the Khmer Rouge's top leaders had publicly accepted that the government committed genocide.

But Khieu Samphan said he realized he could no longer ignore the Khmer Rouge's atrocities after he saw a documentary about the notorious S-21 prison, presented to him by a Cambodian-French filmmaker, Rithy Pan.

"When I saw the film, it was hard for me to deny. There's no more doubt left," said Khieu Samphan, who lives in Pailin, 175 miles northwest of the capital, Phnom Penh.

"I was surprised, because I never thought it [the regime] went to that extent in its policies. S-21 was in the middle of Phnom Penh. It was clearly a state institution."

Until he saw the film, he said, he had reserved his judgment about the prison's existence and atrocities.

As many as 16,000 people are believed to have passed through the gates of the infamous prison, but only 14 are thought to have survived. The prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

None of the Khmer Rouge's surviving leadership has faced justice. Many are infirm but, like Khieu Samphan, live and move freely about the country. Pol Pot, the regime's leader, died in 1998.

After five years of negotiations, UN and Cambodian officials tentatively agreed this month on steps to set up the tribunal. But the court's creation has been delayed by a lack of funds and by political instability after Cambodia's inconclusive general elections left three parties jostling to create a coalition.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to launch an appeal in early February for contributions toward the tribunal's $40 million operating budget. Sok An, the Cambodian government's chief negotiator for setting up the court, has said its formalization will be "addressed immediately" once a new legislature is formed.

The other senior leader expected to face trial is Nuon Chea, the former Khmer Rouge's ideologue, who also lives in Pailin. He and Khieu Samphan surrendered to the government in December 1998, just a few months before the capture of Ta Mok, the former Khmer Rouge army chief, which capped the final collapse of the movement.

Ta Mok and Kaing Khek lev, the S-21 prison's chief, are in prison.

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