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Friday, November 27, 2009

Cambodia cancels $41.2 million loan from Thailand

By SOPHENG CHEANG,Associated Press Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia informed Thailand on Friday it was canceling a US$41.2 million loan from Bangkok meant to finance the upgrade of a highway from the Thai border.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said his country didn't need the loan and could afford to build the road on its own.

The decision comes during a period of bad relations between the two countries over Cambodia's recent welcome to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive from Thai justice.

Thai-Cambodian relations took a turn for the worse when Cambodia recently named Thaksin an adviser on economic affairs. The subsequent visit by Thaksin, and Cambodia's rejection of a formal request from Bangkok to extradite him, drew a negative reaction from Bangkok.

Each country has recalled its ambassador and Bangkok has canceled an agreement to negotiate on joint development of offshore territory claimed by both countries. It also said it would review all other assistance agreements and projects with its neighbor.

Cambodia is holding a Thai man on a spying charge for allegedly sending a copy of Thaksin's flight schedule to the Thai Embassy during the former leader's visit earlier this month.

The secretary to Thailand's foreign minister, Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, downplayed the importance of Phnom Penh's cancellation of the loan to upgrade the 73-mile (117-kilometer) road stretching from Cambodia's northwestern border with Thailand to the province of Siem Reap.

He called it a normal procedure, as Friday marked three months after the agreement was signed, and Cambodia was supposed to give notice on whether it agreed to its terms.

The road would in large part serve trade between the two countries, which is heavily in Thailand's favor.

He said Thailand had reviewed the agreement, as part of its earlier threat to cancel all assistance agreements, but took no action on it.

A Thai court last year sentenced Thaksin in absentia to two years in prison for violating a conflict of interest law, but he fled into exile before the verdict. He was prime minister from 2001 until ousted by a military coup in 2006.

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Khmer Rouge prison chief asks Cambodia genocide tribunal to release him, citing time served

By SOPHENG CHEANG and LUKE HUNT , Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - After claiming to feel great remorse for his part in Khmer Rouge atrocities, the defendant in Cambodia's first genocide trial on Friday surprised the court with a last-minute plea for his freedom, saying he should not have been prosecuted and has already spent ten years in jail.

Kaing Guek Eav, who headed a torture center from which about 16,000 men, women and children were sent to their deaths, seemingly stepped back from previous assertions of responsibility for his actions and expressions of sorrow to his victims, as well as willingness to accept severe punishment.

His Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, went a step further and stunned the tribunal by issuing the trial's first clear call for an acquittal of his client, even after his French lawyer, Francois Roux, denied seeking such a verdict.

Only when directly pressed by a frustrated Judge Dame Silvia Cartwright of New Zealand did Kar Savuth say that in calling for Duch's release he was seeking his acquittal.

After consultations, the judges at the U.N.-assisted tribunal accepted the plea for acquittal, even though the legal basis for it was unclear.

Acquittal in legal terms normally means a finding that the defendant is not guilty of the crimes he is charged with, while the defense case hinged generally on claims that Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, ought to have any punishment lightened in view of his cooperation with the court and expressions of remorse.

Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theary Seng said the call for an acquittal was difficult to understand.

"What he did totally undermines his efforts up until now in terms of remorse and it undermines his request for forgiveness, which I thought was genuine," she said. "It's inexplicable and calls into question his previous efforts of remorse. This is really disturbing."

Friday's dramatic turn of events came as the trial was in its next to last stage, with prosecution and defense making rebuttals to the other's closing arguments. Judges are expected to issue their verdict early next year.

Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture.

The prosecution earlier this week asked the court to sentence Duch to 40 years in jail, taking into account his cooperation and time served while waiting for trial. The maximum sentence he could receive is life imprisonment. Cambodia has no death penalty.

Some 1.7 million Cambodians died of torture, execution, disease and starvation due to the radical communist policies of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime. Four senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge are also in the tribunal's custody, and they are expected to be tried next year or later.

Even Friday, Duch spoke of acknowledging and apologizing for "the more than one million souls who perished" due to the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

But he went on to claim that the tribunal's mandate was to prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders, and didn't apply to him, an argument that had already been rejected by the court.

Also pointing out the time he had already spent in custody, Duch said to the judges, "I ask the chamber to release me."

The tribunal earlier this year ruled that Duch had been held illegally for five of the eight years he was in the custody of Cambodia's military court before being transferred to the tribunal, and that if found guilty, he could get credit not only for time already served but also to compensate for the earlier violation of his rights.

The positions of Duch's two lawyers seemed to diverge in their closing arguments earlier this week, with Kar Savuth seeking an acquittal, and Roux pleading for a lenient prison sentence due to his client's contrition and cooperation with the court.

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Thailand, Cambodia say row won't lead to conflict

BANGKOK — Thailand and Cambodia's diplomatic row over fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra will not cause further clashes between their armed forces, their defense ministers said after meeting Friday.

Relations between the countries, which have fought a string of deadly gunbattles on their border since last year, plunged earlier this month when Thaksin visited Phnom Penh as an advisor to the Cambodian government.

After a two-day meeting in the Thai resort town of Pattaya which ended Friday, the Thai and Cambodian defense ministers said they had agreed to reach peaceful solutions to solve new misunderstandings.

"Thai and Cambodian forces will support every mechanism to strengthen relations between the two countries," Thai defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.

Prawit said the meeting focused on issues around the poorly defined, heavily armed border and how to make people who live there live peacefully.

Prawit added that military and diplomatic rows were different, saying: "We have to divide them from each other".

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as an economic adviser earlier this month and the Thai tycoon then visited Phnom Penh for four days from November 10.

Thailand was infuriated when Cambodia refused to extradite Thaksin, who was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia in September 2008 on corruption charges and is currently living in exile.

The two countries withdrew their ambassadors, and the row was further inflamed when Cambodian police arrested a Thai man on charges of spying on Thaksin and expelled the first secretary to Thailand's embassy.

Thailand reciprocated soon after.

But Cambodia allowed the mother of the detained man, Siwarak Chothipong, 31, an employee at the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, to visit him in prison on Friday in a bid to ease tensions.

"They met for one hour and a half at a meeting room in the prison," said Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, a secretary to the Thai foreign minister.

Siwarak's mother, Simarak Na Nokhon Phanom, told reporters at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh that she thanked Hun Sen for allowing her to see her son, but added that he was "unlucky" to be arrested.

Siwarak an employee at the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, was arrested early this month on charges of spying on Thaksin's flight schedule.

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Feature: Mekong Arts Festival: catalyst for social changes

As some 200 artists and media practitioners converge here for the week-long Mekong Festival beginning on Monday, their attention has gone far beyond "arts for arts' sake". What they are advocating is how to promote arts as catalyst for social transformation.

Through workshops, performances, forum, conference, film shows and visual arts, artists from the Mekong sub-region which is composed of Cambodia, China, Laos , Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, showcased their understanding of life in the era of globalization and economic integration.

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), one of the organizers of the Festival from the host country, has demonstrated the vigor and power of youth art throughout the festival with the omni-present performers, some 100 in total, disseminating the message of arts as a life-transforming force.

PPS, meaning "the brightness of art" in Khmer, was originated in 1989 from a refugee camp on the Thai border, when child refugees were encouraged to use artistic expression to overcome the trauma of war. After the refugees returned to their homeland, the idea of creative workshops persisted as a group of former children from the camp founded PPS IN 1994.

Today, PPS, a Cambodian non-governmental organization (NGO) which aims to support community development through providing social, educative and cultural services to children and their families, has not only hosted poor, disabled, abused and trafficked children in the Child Care Center, but opens wide its door to children and youth who want to pursue their artistic instincts and interests by enlisting them to its Visual Arts School, Performing Arts School and Music School.

Its iconic circus groups are the most renowned among its schools, touring and performing in Cambodia and Europe, nurturing an independent generation who are capable of supporting themselves while exemplifying their strength.

"Arts is a powerful tool for children to develop their confidence," said Khun Det, founder of PPS. He believes that visual arts and culture is more effective than speeches. He regarded PPS circus as "social circus" which combines elements of theater and music in addition to tradition.

During the Festival, audiences are amazed PPS performers whose vigor, humor and skills are great inspirations to children and youth in the community.

Chinese artists also shared their experiences at the Festival.

Zhang Jinzhong, an ethnic Jingpo dancer from Nengguan Performing Arts and Training Center in Ruili, southwest China's Yunnan Province, has been doing health education through dance for four years, helping ethnic youths learn folk dance, rap, or modern dance while staying away from drugs and HIV/AIDS.

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Lawyers say Khmer Rouge prison chief a scapegoat


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Closing arguments were expected to conclude Friday in the genocide trial of a Khmer Rouge prison chief, with the two sides sparing over how much the former Cambodian school teacher should be held accountable for the regime's brutality.

Prosecutors earlier in the week demanded a 40-year jail sentence for Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, but the defense insisted he was not a senior Khmer Rouge leader and therefore should not be prosecuted at all.

That prompted an angry rebuttal Friday from Australian co-prosecutor William Smith, who said such defense assertions showed that Duch (pronounced DOIK) was "not facing up to who he was back in 1975 to 1979."

Duch commanded the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh where those accused of disloyalty to the xenophobic communist regime were held. He oversaw the torture and execution of about 16,000 men, women and children during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.

Some 1.7 million Cambodians died of torture, execution, disease and starvation under the Khmer Rouge, whose Maoist ideologues led by Pol Pot emptied cities and forced virtually the entire population to work on farm collectives.

Judges in the U.N.-backed tribunal are expected to decide the verdict and sentence by early next year.

French defense attorney Francois Roux told the court Thursday that his client was being made a "scapegoat" for all the wrongs committed by the Khmer Rouge.

"As long as the prosecution's submissions make this man a scapegoat, you will not advance the development of humankind one millimeter," Roux told the packed court. "No, Duch does not have to bear the whole horror of the tragedy of Cambodia on his head."

Roux also criticized prosecutors for portraying Duch as a key member of the regime responsible for the network of terror.

"How dare you!" he declared, telling the court that a mere 1 percent of the Khmer Rouge victims died at S-21.

Duch, 67, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture, which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

He has denied personally killing or torturing the S-21 prisoners, and testified that he only reluctantly carried out the orders from his superiors, because he feared for his life and his family's safety.

Addressing the court Wednesday, Duch apologized to the dead, their families, survivors of the regime and to all Cambodians — something he has done repeatedly since the trial began in March.

He said he was "deeply remorseful and profoundly affected by the destruction on such a mind-boggling scale."

But he emphasized that he was not alone in carrying out torture and killings, which also took place at 196 other prisons across the country, and insisted there was little he could do to prevent the horror at S-21.

"I could do nothing to help," he said. "Pol Pot regarded these people as thorns in his eyes."

Smith, the co-prosecutor, earlier acknowledged Duch's admissions of guilt and the fact that he has given evidence against other Khmer Rouge leaders, but said he still must be held accountable.

"The crimes committed by the accused at S-21 are rarely matched in modern history in terms of their combined barbarity, scope, duration, premeditation and their callousness," he said. "Not just the victims and their families but the whole of humanity demand a just and proportionate response to these crimes and this court must speak on behalf of that humanity."

Some survivors and other victims of the Khmer Rouge attending the U.N.-backed trial said a 40-year prison term, which would likely lock up Duch for life, would not be harsh enough. They want a life sentence handed down.

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