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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hard now to avoid a KRT 'show trial'

Hard now to avoid a KRT 'show trial'

As Rupert Skilbeck pointed out ("The Principal Defender," Post, November

17, 2006), the Khmer Rouge Trial (KRT) should not be a show trial. Of course, in

the pursuit of justice this demand is really important. Unfortunately, it is only

applicable to the internal design of the KRT as the result of a political bargaining

process over more than ten years.

In setting the framework of the trial, many paladins of the former leaders are excluded

from prosecution. Furthermore, the background of some national judges of the ECCC

should raise concerns whether fairness isn't threatened through their appointment.

Altogether, the fairness of the trial in pursuing justice for the Khmer Rouge's crimes

is hampered already by political considerations.

The KRT is very different from its historical model, the Nuremburg trials against

leading Nazis and others after the Second World War. At Nuremburg, even a non-member

of the NSDAP (Nazi Party) like former German Chancellor Franz von Papen or national

banker Hjalmar Schacht had to stand trial. That they were found not guilty was a

good argument for the Allies that the trial was not "victors' justice."

Unfortunately, figures like them are not present for the KRT, especially for the

periods before April 17, 1975 and after January 7, 1979 [excluded from KRT jurisdiction].

And this also avoids examining the involvement of other states in the Khmer Rouge's


In this context it is hard to understand what Skilbeck means when he argues that

if the defendants are not treated fairly "no one can ever be sure what really

happened." The exclusion of many years from the trial will even ensure this

fact, and for 1975-to-1978 the work of famous scholars like Chandler, Kiernan or

Vickery as well as the work of several local NGOs has made it clear already that

the defendants are highly politically responsible. If the initiators of the KRT were

not sure that the condemnation of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge is the next

logical step it is obvious that there would not be any trial.

The KRT is an indubitable show trial: it should be shown to the Khmer people that

justice is possible, and this motivation should not be questioned. But is it really

the highest value while there is still the possibility of political violence and

instability? It must be remembered that in giving amnesty to the former Khmer Rouge

leaders it was possible to end the civil war in 1998 - after nearly 30 years of war,

civil war and genocide. This peace must be protected - not only in the view of the

directly involved, the Khmers -and even this causes a lack of justice.

Sometimes it seems that issues like this are not present in the perception of the

international lawyers and experts. It is in doubt whether they are really sufficiently

informed about Khmer culture and history.

Or how can it be explained, for example, that Skilbeck claims that the KRT can improve

the legal system of Cambodia? The country's legal system is used as a tool to govern

and not to ensure the rule of law or horizontal accountability. This will change

only over a very long period and therefore the KRT's impact will be minimal.

And if leading members of the Royal Family should give evidence as witnesses at the

trial it could be very difficult in explaining this to the Khmers who still admire

King Father Sihanouk, even for the Principal Defender.

If the KRT were to fail it would be better not to conduct it, for in this case it

would be a show trial, too, but very different from all the positive expectations.

Markus Karbaum - PhD Candidate, Humboldt University, Berlin



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