Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes tribunal has come under fire from observers and Khmer Rouge victims as it weighs a controversial new case that is strongly opposed by the government.
The court’s third case — which targets two unnamed individuals — has proved so contentious that Cambodian and international prosecutors openly argued about whether to pursue it this month.
“There is definitely already damage to the court because of the controversy,” said tribunal monitor Clair Duffy from the rights group Open Society Justice Initiative.
So far only one member of the murderous 1975-1979 regime, former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, has been successfully prosecuted.
He was sentenced last July to 30 years in jail for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The case is now under appeal.
A second trial involving the regime’s four most senior surviving leaders is due to start next month.
However, the government wants the court’s activities to end there, arguing that going after more suspects further down the chain of command could plunge the country back into civil war.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — himself a mid-level cadre before turning against the movement — last year said the third case was “not allowed.”
Little information has been made public about case three, but the suspects are believed to be former Khmer Rouge navy and air force commanders.
A possible fourth case, thought to involve three mid-level cadres, is still under investigation, but is also facing political pressure.
Observers fear both new cases will be dismissed — raising the very real possibility that the court, which has cost foreign donors nearly US$150 million, will try just five people for the deaths of nearly a quarter of the population.
“We know there is no magical figure as to how many should be tried or indicted,” said outspoken Khmer Rouge survivor Theary Seng, who lost her parents under the regime. “However, the current five is not enough and to push for another five is not unreasonable.”
The tribunal was set up to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people from starvation, overwork and execution in the regime’s bid to forge a communist utopia.
Divisions within the court about how to handle the politically sensitive third and fourth cases were laid bare when judges announced late last month they had concluded their investigations into case three — without questioning the suspects.
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley promptly called for their alleged crimes to be examined more thoroughly and for the suspects to be summoned.
His comments pitted him directly against his national counterpart, who said the suspects fell outside the court’s jurisdiction.
Cayley was subsequently rebuked by the investigating judges for revealing too much information about case three, to the dismay of observers who have long decried the secrecy surrounding the suspects.
“Cayley’s statement let the public know there were major gaps in this investigation,” Duffy said.
The unusually frank exchanges at the court highlighted deep splits along national and international lines.
Theary Seng said many of the court’s Cambodian employees were toeing the government line.
“But what is totally unacceptable and sickening is the United Nations succumbing to the same domestic politics,” she said.