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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govts row over defectors

Govts row over defectors

W HEN the wife of Khmer Rouge colonel Chhouk Rin was brought from the jungle by government forces to Phnom Penh earlier this month, she was treated to a two-hour audience by Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh who then paid for her visit to the hairdresser for a perm. She is important because her husband is the self confessed commander of the July 26 attack on a passenger train that left 13 civilians dead and three Western hostages marched off into the jungle to be killed.

Colonel Rin - who now wears a government uniform, retains his rank, and has been given amnesty from prosecution, - defected with more than 100 of his men and has fully admitted to his role in commanding the train attack and kidnapping the Westerners.

The Australian, British, and French governments are outraged, say their diplomats. They say that they want those responsible for the kidnapping and murder of their nationals brought to justice. The Cambodians are refusing.

The row has escalated in recent days, severely testing the relations between the governments and undermining the near term chances of receiving desperately needed military and other assistance.

"We have made it absolutely clear to the Cambodian authorities and will again that Australia expects those responsible for the hostages abduction to be brought to justice," Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said on Oct 27, "We cannot and will not accept anything less than the murderers being brought to justice."

But on Nov 1, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen made clear the government position: "They [Chhouk Rin and his men] must have the right to join the national community and to be ordinary citizens. We can not take this chance to punish them as they already left the Khmer Rouge to live with the national community. So this issue should be put aside."

Minister of Information Ieng Mouly, accompanying the Prime Minister, added: "The Khmer Rouge who have surrendered already will be given amnesty."

One angry Australian diplomat said:."Now it is time to reassess where Cambodia fits into our priorities."

According to an Australian diplomat, the Australian cabinet was scheduled to announce military support for the RCAF this week, "but that is called off for sure. It would be political suicide for us."

The incident is one of a number in recent months that threaten to undermine attempts by the Cambodian government to receive military assistance needed to strengthen it's fledgling armed forces against the Khmer Rouge.

Diplomats, government officials and human rights organizations say that the Kampot hostage case highlights the contradictions between the legitimate interests of the Cambodian government and the equally legitimate rights of the governments of the dead hostages.

"There is a contradiction between sound policy and international law," said a western human rights official, "In the end, amnesty is good to end the war. It is a reasonable position politically for the government, but in this case it violates international law."

In Kampot, the government amnesty program, in conjunction with the military pressure since the hostages were seized, has resulted in the virtual destruction of the Khmer Rouge military apparatus in the area.

"The three month military operation at Phnom Vour was a big success - the first big test and success for the army, " said Secretary of State for Defence Ek Serevath on Oct 31, "Nobody had been able to take Phnom Vour since the Sihanouk times. It has long been a Khmer Rouge stronghold. The army had good cooperation between its forces, used psychological operations successfully, and successfully forced defections."

The price, many would argue, was the death of the three hostages. Diplomats say the hostages were executed at the end of September, shortly after a major government military offensive began which killed many villagers in the Khmer Rouge stronghold. The leverage provided by the hostages as protection from military assaults proved worthless to the Khmer Rouge, and the hostages were executed, diplomats say.

Cambodian authorities attacked the Khmer Rouge against the requests of the three governments who knew that it would threaten negotiations and the lives of the hostages.

The demands of the three governments that Colonel Chhouk Rin and others responsible be brought to justice appears to be firmly grounded in international and Cambodian law.

"The amnesty in this case is contrary to the obligations of Cambodia under international law, to the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights, and the Geneva conventions," said Daniel Permont, the director of the United Nations Centre of Human Rights.

Cambodia is a signatory of the Covenant and the Geneva conventions. Furthermore, the Cambodian Constitution ratified the Covenants. Article 31 of the constitution states: "The Kingdom of Cambodia should recognize and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it's covenants."

Article 6 of the Covenant states: "Nobody should be arbitrarily deprived of life." According to Permont: "The covenant further states that there is no amnesty for this, there is no exception for these rights. Even if they give them amnesty, it doesn't matter. There is no derogation of the right to life, even in cases of civil disorder."

The laws appear to apply clearly to Colonel Chhouk Rin, who admits to commanding the assault on the train and seizing the hostages. He denies however that he was in authority when they were murdered.

Under the Untac laws, which remain in effect, Article 69, entitled "complicity", states: "Whoever has provided the means by which an offense is committed, ordered that the offense be committed, or facilitates commission of the offense shall be considered an accomplice and punished with the same punishment applicable to the principle offender."

Cambodian government officials, diplomats, and Khmer Rouge defectors say that Khmer Rouge General Noun Paet, who remains at large, ordered the executions.

But human rights lawyers contacted by the Post say that it is clear that whether or not Colonel Rin pulled the trigger is irrelevant under these laws; he remains culpable for prosecution.

They point as well to article three of the Geneva Conventions on Humanitarian Law which states that "in the case of armed conflict, acts that shall remain prohibited include....taking of hostages."

What both the Geneva Conventions and the Covenants make clear is that amnesty can not be given in the case of certain violations, particularly "the right to life" (Article 6 of the Covenants) and the "taking of hostages" (Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on Humanitarian Law).

But Cambodian authorities point to the June passage of the legislation formally outlawing the Khmer Rouge which offers amnesty to Khmer Rouge cadre who defect within six months. Article 5 of the outlaw bill "allows an amnesty period of six months for members of the political body or [those] belonging to the military forces of the "Democratic Kamp-uchea" group to re-integrate without being charged for offenses they have caused."

Human Rights lawyers argue that the government "should give amnesty to those who did not violate the right to life. For the right to life under international law of which Cambodia is a signatory there is no derogation."

Whether the governments of the murdered hostages will see those responsible arrested and charged remains unclear, but diplomats say it has scuttled the ability to push ahead for military and other support in the near term.

But while there remains sympathy for the Cambodian government's position in regard to the amnesty program, donor countries are already burdened with a growing concern for supporting a government and military implicated in a series of human rights violations that the leadership appears unwilling to tackle.

Another reason that the Cambodians are balking at pushing for the arrest of Colonel Rin is, according to Cambodian and diplomatic sources, that in any criminal trial it would be revealed that the Cambodian army itself attacked the train in conjunction with their Khmer Rouge "enemies" in what began as a simple act of banditry.

Diplomats say that last week both the Australian and French Embassies were so frustrated by the Cambodian policy on the kid-nappings that they proposed a plan to send their own military commandos to the Khmer Rouge area in an attempt to recover the bodies of their nationals, but the British nixed the idea.

On paper Cambodia has come up with a reform plan for the RCAF that has the seal of approval of it's three most important donor countries - Australia, the United States, and France. While de-emphasizing acquisition of hardware, it calls for scaling down the armed forces from 130,000 to 70,000. Included in that is eliminating all but about 100 of the current 2,000 generals and similar reductions from the current 10,000 colonels. The RCAF is said to have the highest ratio of officers of any army in the world - more than 55 percent. The reform plan emphasizes training programs to "depoliticize and profesionalize" the new army, which is an amalgam of three former battlefield enemies that emerged from the coalition government formed after UN sponsored elections last year.

"What we need most of all is to reorganize the army," said Ek Sereyvath, Secretary of State for Defence, "We have problems in terms of organization, discipline and equipment."

For France, Australia, and the United States, supporting the new Cambodian army is accompanied by substantial domestic political concerns, not the least being still raw memories raised at home, they say, for military support of ground wars against communist insurgents in Indochina.

But while the Cambodian authorities are candid about the problems within the RCAF, many diplomats argue that it is mostly talk and there is little political will to implement real reforms and weed out bad elements.

They point to the most glaring example of military human rights abuse, the Battambang secret prisons case where senior officers were exposed in August of being responsible for at least 53 summary extra judicial killings, according to investigations by the United Nations.

Some of the victims were mutilated and then body parts cooked and eaten by their military captors, according to eyewitness accounts. Others were blown up after being forced to clear minefields. Still others were repeatedly raped or subjected to electric shock under interrogation.

At least eight officers have been named, some with outstanding United Nations arrest warrants for murder of political opponents prior to last year's elections. Not only have none of the officers been charged, but they retain their positions in the military, some having been promoted since charges were leveled. Human rights investigators say that the government is aware of all the evidence but has engaged in a political cover-up ordered by the Co-Premiers.

The Battambang incidents are "in the past. It is a case that has been solved already. It is an old issue for us," says Sereywath,"The police and the army are more democratic than they were a year or two ago.

"We had political killings, assassination with various kinds of motivations by the army. But already it is a big improvement. Some people who were involved have been removed."

He added that "in Cambodia, we have difficulty in dealing with opponents."

But human rights workers are outraged by such an official brushing off, say that the issue is far from dead, and that glaring human rights abuses by government forces continue.

"The persons implicated [in the Battambang military abuses] should be arrested, prosecuted, judged, and sanctioned," said Daniel Permont of UNCHR on Nov 1. But officials say there is little chance that prosecutions are imminent, despite overwhelming evidence.

In early September, during the peak of publicity about the Battambang abuses, a senior official of the UN Center for Human Rights was stopped at gun point and his five-year-old daughter was kidnapped, shot at point blank range through the thigh, and dumped in streets of Phnom Penh. Cambodian human rights organizations believe the shooting of the little girl was aimed at warning investigators to back off.

Minister of Interior You Hokry dismissed the attack as "a car robbery". But even police investigators close to the case say that this is part of an official cover-up.

"The minimum we can say, based on the facts, is she [the five- year-old child] was intentionally abducted and intentionally injured," said Permont. Added a police investigator, who demanded anonymity: "We know who did it, but the problem is they are wearing military uniforms." Government investigators say they believe the gunmen are currently serving in the military in Battambang.

Critics of the Khmer military also in point out the Non Chan case. Chan, editor of Samleng Yuvachun Khmer, a popular newspaper critical of corruption and military abuses, was shot dead in September in Phnom Penh by gunmen witnesses say were wearing military uniforms. Government investigators and human rights workers say they have strong evidence that the killers are linked with senior government officials. Government investigators say Prime Minister Ranariddh has ordered a halt to the investigation because it was leading to senior officials in the government. Interior Minister You Hokry says the investigation continues, but several of his own subordinates say they have been told to not pursue the case further.

Regardless, no one has been arrested or dismissed from the armed forces in any of the cases, and investigators say that they believe that the government has made a political decision not to pursue prosecution against any of the officials implicated.

On Nov 1, Co-Minister of Defence Tea Chamrath began a 15-day official visit to the United States, where he will meet the US secretary of defence to seek assistance, but US sources say the chances of getting more than symbolic support are hampered by continuing questions of a military still running amok.

The United States - like Australia and France - currently provide limited support for demining, military engineering, training programs, and other "non-lethal" aid. But privately they say the chances of giving "lethal aid" is near zero until at least 1996.

Not least of their concerns is "proof", according to Western intelligence sources, that the Cambodian army is selling ammunition and weapons to the Khmer Rouge. "We will be defacto suppliers of military assistance to the Khmer Rouge," said one western military analyst involved in the debate.

They say that it will be difficult to defend proposals in front of the US Congress to supply ammunition or weapons to the government at this point. "Policy makers are not proposing lethal aid because they don't want the general question of military assistance undermined," said one US military analyst,"If the military we are supporting is involved in abuses, I could definitely see the military program shut down in front of Congress.

"Human rights are a big issue. Cambodia doesn't have the leverage that other countries do. There is little strategic value here."



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