PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge-era president, Khieu Samphan, was charged with genocide on Friday, a step experts said could bog down a U.N.-backed war crimes trial already criticized for taking too long.
Khieu Samphan, who is already charged with crimes against humanity, is the most senior Khmer Rouge leader indicted in connection with the deaths of 1.7 million people during the 1975-79 “Killing Fields” reign of terror.
Similar charges of genocide were issued on Wednesday against “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary for their alleged role in the slaughter of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minorities.
The two have also been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with two other former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who pursued a bloody agrarian revolution from under the leadership of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
The announcement came as the tribunal made a formal request on Friday for an additional $93 million over the next two years to fund a trial widely criticized for dragging on too long.
The tribunal said it anticipated increased activity in 2010 and needed funding to meet costs of legal representation and “potential additional cases.”
The prospect of more indictments has been a contentious issue in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government includes former Khmer Rouge cadres, has warned that arresting more suspects could spark a civil war.
The first trial of a senior Khmer Rouge cadre, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, ended three weeks ago. He was accused of overseeing the torture and murder of more than 14,000 people.
A verdict in that case is expected by March.
Khieu Samphan, 78, a French-educated guerrilla leader, was arrested in 2007. He has portrayed himself as a virtual prisoner of the regime and denied knowledge of any atrocities.
David Chandler, an authority on the Khmer Rouge at Melbourne’s Monash University, said the genocide charges further complicated a case that is already so complex and politicized it may never go to trial.
He said the new charges may inadvertently help the defense if they delay proceedings. The four remaining suspects awaiting trial are elderly and in poor health. There is concern they may die before facing their victims in court.
“It’s going to be very helpful for the defense to throw up a big smokescreen,” Chandler said in a telephone interview.
Philip Short, author of a book on Pol Pot, said the additional charge was “misconceived and unhelpful.”
“Why muddy the waters by bringing in doubtful charges which will only lead the tribunal to bog down further?” he said.
“This is foolishness and muddled thinking of a kind which, alas, has characterized this tribunal from the outset.”
Some analysts argue genocide does not apply to the Khmer Rouge because they committed atrocities against political enemies, mostly from their own dominant Khmer ethnic group.
But advocates of the charges say the regime’s enemies also included ethnic Vietnamese and Cham who rose up and rebelled against the regime.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said there was evidence minority groups were targeted, pointing to massacres after the Cham rebelled in 1975, including the eradication of an entire community on the island of Koh Phal.
“You don’t have to kill a million Vietnamese or a million Cham to call it genocide,” said Chhang, whose center collects evidence of Khmer Rouge crimes.
Editing by Martin Petty and Paul Tait