Thursday, June 9, 2011

Leaked Document Casts Doubt on Impartiality of Khmer Rouge Judges

As an international tribunal prepares to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial beginning June 27, a confidential document obtained raises questions about the UN-backed court’s ability to independently prosecute members of the brutal regime. The 2008 court document reveals when tribunal prosecutors laid out their case against two former military commanders, they requested that the investigating judges detain them.

The level of detail in the document builds a strong case against the commanders, but the judges ignored the request to detain them and didn’t even summon the suspects for questioning during 20 months of investigation. The judges lack of response underscores concerns about their ability to carry out their duties. When they announced April 29 that they had concluded their investigation, many victims and observers were outraged, pointing out that investigators failed to question suspects and witnesses, or even inspect sites that could contain mass graves.
On Tuesday, the coinvestigating judges rejected a request by International Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley to extend the investigation, sparking a new round of criticism from observers and watchdog groups.

Two new suspects

About one quarter of Cambodia’s population died from starvation, forced labor, disease, or execution during the regime’s reign from 1975 until 1979. A Khmer Rouge prison chief was sentenced last year, while four top regime leaders are expected to begin trial in June for allegedly orchestrating policies that killed approximately 2 million people.

The 2008 document outlines the case against two additional suspects – Khmer Rouge AirForce Commander Sou Met, and Navy Commander Meas Mut. Prosecutors alleged they share responsibility for crimes including torture, killing, and the forced labor of tens of thousands of people.

Resistance to proceeding with the trial

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly expressed opposition to expanding the scope of prosecution, even telling UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that he would not allow more cases to go forward. He has warned that pursuing further cases could spark political violence.

Echoing government rhetoric is Chea Leang, the Cambodian prosecutor in the hybrid tribunal, which assigns national and international staff to each role. She issued a statement on May 10 saying the case should be dropped. Critics have accused Ms. Chea and the investigating judges, German Siegfried Blunk and Cambodian You Bunleng, of bowing to political pressure.

The judges strongly denied such claims in a May 26 statement, saying they “have worked independently from outside interference, and will continue to resist all such attempts and are resolved to defend their independence against outside interference, wherever it may come from.” Close observers of the court, however, have noted difficulties prosecutors have faced in bringing more than five Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.

The case that was built

In addition to their military roles, the court submission claims they were influential figures in the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), as the regime’s political entity was known, with Sou obtaining “one of the highest ranks within the CPK.” Both attended meetings where planned purges of the armed forces were discussed, prosecutors claimed.

As navy commander, Meas also controlled Cambodia’s coast, where prosecutors allege that his sailors captured and killed Thai and Vietnamese fishermen, and abducted nationals of other countries including “at least four Westerners.”

Also according to the document, a commander who reported directly to Sou was responsible for overseeing the construction of a military airport that also functioned as a “re-education or tempering site” for soldiers suspected of harboring disloyalty toward the regime. Witnesses interviewed by the prosecution described horrific conditions at the construction site, where starving workers perished daily as a result of “strenuous and unrelenting labor.”

The document details similar atrocities carried out at other sites. These included a Buddhist temple used as a detention center, and a rock quarry where prisoners included fishermen, navy sailors, and “people whose relatives had been members of the previous regime.”

The Christian Science Monitor By Jared Ferrie, Correspondent

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