A Change of Guard

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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Judge Resigns, Casting Doubt Over Khmer Rouge Trials

In this undated photo, a man cleans a skull near a mass grave at the Choeung Ek camp outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia — the best known of the killing fields run by the Khmer Rouge in the middle and late 1970s. Now, Cambodians are skeptical that a U.N.-backed tribunal will be able to deliver justice in the case of four remaining high-level Khmer Rouge officials. Enlarge Jeff Widener/AP

by Anthony Kuhn
October 17, 2011

Long running and frequently delayed, the legal cases against former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now in danger of being terminated before many of their victims get the justice they've sought.

A German judge resigned this month from the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. The judge, Siegfried Blunk, felt Cambodian officials were obstructing efforts to investigate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, which is believed to have killed as many as 2 million of its own citizens between 1975 and 1979.

The resignation has triggered skepticism among Cambodians about the prospects for justice at the tribunal, and about the U.N.'s involvement in it.

The remaining four members of the Khmer Rouge's ruling Central Committee — Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Tirith — are all in their 70s or 80s, and the court is hurrying to put them on trial before they die.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge regimental commander, has spoken out publicly against any further prosecutions, saying they would be divisive and harmful to national security.

This further complicated the job of Judge Blunk, who was supposed to investigate cases before they went to trial.

But Blunk says he resisted the pressure and tried his best to remain impartial.

Court spokesman Lars Olsen says Blunk performed his duties "assuming that the reported statements by the prime minister last year about not allowing further cases to move forward was not reflective of the general Cambodian government's policy."

A tourist views photos of former Khmer Rouge prisoners at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, formerly the regime's notorious S-21 prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in a photo from 2009.

Critics accused Blunk of caving in to government pressure and dropping the tribunal's investigations. Several of his staff quit in protest. Blunk submitted his resignation to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Oct. 9. Olsen says the tribunal has a back-up judge who will take over.

Continuing Efforts To Mobilize Victims

Since its first hearings nearly four years ago, the tribunal has made judicial history by allowing victims to seek nominal reparations from Khmer Rouge leaders.

Earlier this month, activists traveled to central Kampong Chhnang province to conduct human rights training and hand out applications for more victims to participate, even though further cases may never go to trial.

High school teacher Kourn Ngourn, who lost his parents to the Khmer Rouge, was among those attending the event. He complains that victims are getting little help from the Cambodian government or the U.N.

"We see that the authorities are lax in their management," he says. "They have no arrangement to provide information to the victims. They're not helping them to apply to be civil parties at the tribunal."

American-trained lawyer Theary Seng, who was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge, conducted the training in Kampong Chhnang.

"I am making personal, direct charges" against the four remaining leaders, she says, "holding them responsible for the deaths of my father, of my mother, for the fact that they imprisoned me for five to six months as a child."

Seng is helping to organize fellow victims, but she says the government is excluding many civil parties from the tribunal and barring those who do participate from arguing their own cases. She says this has degraded the quality of the victims' participation.

"The quality of it has just spiraled downward to a quality where I have a hard time accepting whether I should continue to be in this process or not," she says.

Seng pointed to the abandoned Kampong Chhnang airport nearby. Cows placidly graze where she says the Khmer Rouge executed 20,000 to 30,000 people in the late 1970s. Until recently, the control tower was piled high with victims' skulls and bones. Seng is indignant that this crime site is being neither investigated nor protected.

On the other hand, the tribunal barely has the resources or time to investigate more than a few of Cambodia's 189 prisons, 380 killing fields and 19,403 mass graves, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Disappointment In Lack Of International Pressure

Nobody is disputing that the tribunal's scope must be limited. Its mandate, after all, is to only go after the most senior, most responsible Khmer Rouge leaders. What victims and their lawyers object to is that the government appears to be dictating those limits to the tribunal.

German lawyer Silke Studzinsky, who also represents Khmer Rouge victims, says that political interference in the tribunal is undermining efforts to establish the rule of law in Cambodia.

"How can this be a model for national courts, when a prime minister has the right to order a court?" she asks. "That is a very bad example for Cambodia and also for the legacy of this court."

Studzinsky adds that the tribunal has gradually chipped away at the procedural rights of lawyers representing Khmer Rouge victims, for example, depriving them of the right to cross-examine experts and character witnesses.

Theary Seng, the U.S.-trained lawyer, says that the Cambodian government has deftly outmaneuvered the U.N. and thereby put its authority in question. But she says it doesn't have to be that way.

"The international community has a lot of weight that it is not using out of, really, apathy, out of arrogance, out of just lack of concern," she laments.

After Vietnamese troops drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Cambodia was the site of a Cold War proxy battle. China, with U.S. backing, shielded the Khmer Rouge, while the Soviet Union and Vietnamese backed the National Salvation Front, including Hun Sen.

So while many Cambodians feel the U.N. and the international community bear some responsibility for their country's fate, they also wouldn't exactly be surprised if foreign powers turn a blind eye and let the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders off the hook.

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