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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tribunal graft charges spread

Tribunal graft charges spread

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090227_02.jpg

German delegation exposes results of secret UN probe; staff concur

Photo by:
HENG CHIVOAN

Monks file into the Extraordinary Chambers on the opening day of Duch's trial on February 17. 

IT became a monthly ritual: Employees on the Cambodian side of the Khmer Rouge tribunal would get paid, and then they would - somewhat grudgingly - hand over some of their salaries to their supervisors.

"You get paid in full, but when you [collect] it, you put it in an envelope and give it to the collector," a former employee at the UN-backed court told the Post in an interview late last year, describing how many of those working at the court were forced to hand over a percentage of their paychecks to higher-placed officials.

"In front of people, you're told to say, ‘No one is taking away my money,' [and] the money transferred into your account is the full amount, but then you have to ... give over the percentage," the employee said.

These kickback allegations are at the heart of a corruption scandal that has plagued the tribunal since they first came to light in 2006.

Despite denials from Cambodian court officials, the accusations were of enough concern to spark a review by the UN - the results of which have never been made public.

But a report from a German parliamentary delegation, written in November after its members met with the tribunal's deputy director of administration, Knut Rosandhaug, has shed some light on the graft allegations, detailing a bleak assessment of the court's corruption problems.

"A serious problem is the grave corruption which impedes on the work of the hybrid court," the report cites Rosandhaug as saying.

"Cambodian employees are required to pay kickbacks in order to be able to work," the report says, with the authors - members of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee of the German parliament - using the German term schutzgelder, which literally means protection money.

Rosandhaug told the Post Thursday that he had no comment, as the “document referred to is issued by an entity outside the UN and the ECCC.”

“It is now for the Germans to comment,” he added.

The report had been available on the Bundestag website but was unavailable Thursday afternoon with no explanation. Rainer Buescher, the delegation’s press officer, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The report’s findings, however, support accounts given by tribunal staffers and the concerns of lawyers for Brother No 2, Nuon Chea, who have sought to launch a criminal investigation into the alleged graft.

“It certainly confirms some of our worst suspicions,” Andrew Ianuzzi, a legal consultant for Nuon Chea’s defence team, said Thursday.

One court staffer explained in a series of interviews conducted with the Post how the kickback operation worked.

“For the first four months [of my contract], I paid 70 percent [of my salary in kickbacks], then it went down to 10 percent,” said the employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

“Let’s say you are the supervisor. You have 30 people under you, so the people under you know to give their envelope [containing the kickback] to you, and you hand it to Sean Visoth,” the employee said, referring to Cambodia’s top court administrator who is implicated in the Bundestag report. “In all the sections, it’s the same thing.”

The scheme was deeply unpopular – “Would you like it if you got paid, then your money got taken away?” the employee asked – but was maintained by a climate of fear.

“I’m afraid, if they know I talk to you, they’re not going to take a gun and shoot me in my face, but they will find some way [to fire me] … or they [will hurt] my kids,” the employee said.

“I can tell you until the day you close the door, the corruption will still go on,” the employee added.

 “Anyone who speaks, they will be terminated.... They will set up their committee and find a way to get rid of that person who has talked, and that is why up to now” no information has come out.

Included in the Bundestag report are details of last July’s UN probe.

“It is deeply troubling – everyone had been placing blame for corruption on the Cambodian government, but now it seems like someone or some officials with the UN are involved in a potential coverup,” Ianuzzi said.

“It is very damaging for the credibility of the tribunal. Why are international officers protecting corrupt Cambodian officials?” he added.

The report cites Rosandhaug as saying that “the United Nations should withdraw from the tribunal, in case the national government continues to object following up on the corruption allegations”.

“Until today, the government categorically denies the existence of that problem. The United Nations would suffer from a loss of credibility if they’d support a tribunal which is characterised by corruption,” he said, according to the report.

In January, the Nuon Chea defence team filed a complaint to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, claiming unresolved graft allegations threatened the legitimacy of the tribunal and violated their client’s right to a fair trial. The lawyers accused Sean Visoth and the court’s former chief of personnel, Keo Thyvuth, of violating criminal law by “perpetrating, facilitating, aiding and/or abetting an organised regime of institutional corruption at the ECCC during the pending judicial investigation”. They also demanded the results of the UN investigation be released.

The complaint prompted a criminal investigation, but this was abruptly dropped in February.

Sean Visoth has been on sick leave since November, and the head of the court’s public affairs department, Helen Jarvis, said she knew of no date for his planned return to work.

“As far as I know, the UN does not have authority to conduct investigations into Cambodian staffers,” she said Thursday, adding that she knew nothing about the report and could not comment on it.

Sean Visoth could not be reached Thursday, but a woman answering his phone said he was too busy to speak to a reporter.

“It is unclear from the [German] report what exactly the UN found Visoth to be guilty of – did he pay money from his position? Or did he demand money from others? From our perspective ... the latter is more complicated, as it suggests more ECCC officials may be involved,” Ianuzzi said.

“We have some information that the UN has a sectional list” of officials involved in corruption, he added.

The team says this is troubling, as the office of administration is responsible for nine sections of the court, including court management and victim support.

“If everyone in the office of administration is paying kickbacks, everyone is compromised,” Ianuzzi said.

He said the defence team now planned to write a follow-up letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and forward a copy of the delegation’s report to the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal’s prosecutor general in a bid to reopenthe criminal investigation.

In addition, the delegation’s report quotes Rosandhaug as saying the Cambodian government “tries to interfere in the work of the tribunal”.

“The government of Cambodia has already signalled that it will not allow for additional criminal investigations to be opened,” the report says.

The court’s international co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, has sought to try an additional six suspects, but his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, has voiced opposition.

The key question now, however, is what the response – other than further hushing up of the issue – will come from the UN, Ianuzzi said.

“There is a lot of momentum. Things are moving forward. The Duch hearing last week was a success, [and] many people are emotionally and professionally invested in the tribunal, and they want to see it succeed,” he said.

“But everyone needs to take a long hard look at what are the allegations, [and] I hope Knut makes a comment. What this institution really needs is leadership, and no one is leading the ECCC at the moment.”

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