THE July 18 acquittal of former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin has caused serious
concern for a future tribunal to prosecute former KR leaders.
After months of negotiations, the UN and the Cambodian government agreed in early
July on a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding and a national draft law to set up
the tribunal. The National Assembly has to pass the law before the memorandum can
be signed, but one observer said that Rin's acquittal is a warning that the Assembly
will reject the law.
"The government is signaling ahead to all the former KRs, telling them not to
worry. They are saying: We can handle this, we have sovereignty and will not bow
to international pressure. They are gearing up for a rejection of the tribunal law,"
said the observer.
Others agree that Rin's acquittal on the basis of an amnesty provision in the 1994
law banning the KR is a sign of the government's reluctance to prosecute former KR.
"The verdict proved that the government has the will, but not the intention
to convict the KR officials," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation
Center of Cambodia, that collects evidence about the KR 1975-79 regime.
Cambodia scholar Steve Heder speculates that the more immediate message of the Rin
trial may be aimed at former KR foreign minister Ieng Sary.
Sary was pardoned by King Sihanouk in 1996 from a death sentence that was handed
down by a tribunal in 1979.
"The 1994 amnesty provisions can be made to stick for Chhouk Rin, and so, too,
can those of Sary's 1996 pardon, as long as Sary and his proteges continue to serve
Hun Sen's political power," said Heder. But he added Rin's acquittal was also
aimed at people outside Cambodia.
"The other audience is Beijing, which is reassured that Hun Sen is prepared
to stand up to pressure from the US, the UK, France and Australia," he said.
Chinese president Jiang Zemin is scheduled to visit Cambodia in November, and the
observer points out that China may be willing to cover any loss of Western foreign
aid that will arouse from a rejection of the tribunal law.
Meanwhile, one diplomat worries that the invocation of the 1994 amnesty provision
could limit the work sphere of the tribunal
The law was part of the government's policy to encourage KR fighters to defect -
what Prime Minister Hun Sen later called his "win-win policy".
And the policy was successful. Some 6,600 KR rebels defected during 1994, the vast
majority of them within the July 7 to January 7 period of amnesty.
"Rin's acquittal can also be seen as an attempt to limit the authority of the
prosecutors to even investigate the 6,000 plus who came over in 1994," says
Genocide researcher Craig Etcheson criticizes the way the 1994 amnesty provision
"According to international standard you try and convict first and then pardon.
That way a responsibility is assigned before an amnesty is invoked," Etcheson
"The overall signal of Rin's acquittal is that impunity continues to reign in
the Cambodian courts".