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Tribunal officials’ pronouncements must stick to the facts

111212_18
A group of Buddhist monks wait to enter a session of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Dear Editor,

Tony Krahn (letters, December 9) is understandably content with the considerable media attention the Khmer Rouge tribunal attracts.

But it should be realised that being represented in the international press as a credible, impartial court of law places an added responsibility on judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers to ensure their ex officio statements are confined to matters of fact and reflect the legal evidence.

An example: in the Post on December 9, referring to Ieng Sary’s term as foreign minister, mention was made of “alleged criminal acts and the operations of the ministry of foreign affairs, which prosecutors say was called the ‘antechamber of death’ ”. “Was called” by whom? When, and in what context? With what reference?

“Antechamber of death” is a compelling expression. It originally referred to the Nazis’ detention facilities and transition camps for Jews before they reached their final destination.

It was probably brought to Cambodia along with the notion of genocide and the whole comparison with Nazi Germany.

I have heard the expression used by surviving doctors in reference to Democratic Kampuchea’s hospitals, where a lack of medically competent personnel and proper equipment led to the deaths of many patients.

In that context, the appropriateness is questionable, however, as the intentionality the expression implies (deliberately setting people on the route to a certain death) is lacking.

But what is the implication of the Foreign Ministry as an “antechamber”? Certainly, some cadres working there were purged, but that was hardly unique to the ministry.

And, certainly, a number of those Cambodians abroad who were called back by Ieng Sary for revolutionary duty were disappeared, but others (the current Foreign Minister, for instance) fared considerably better.

I believe the alleged crimes of the accused to be sufficiently serious and legally convincing to make it unnecessary for the prosecution to resort to hyperbole, hearsay and spurious analogies. The ECCC needs to distance itself from the first Khmer Rouge tribunal (in August, 1979), which has generally been dismissed as a show trial.

Another example: when Ieng Thirith’s lawyers began looking for ways to get her off the trial, it was reported that her “mental health has been a matter of speculation since her court outburst in early 2009 when she cursed those accusing her of crimes ‘to the seventh circle of hell’   

.  .  . the tribunal said it would appoint psychiatrists to determine whether she was mentally fit to stand trial.”

I am prepared to believe Ieng Thirith may have mental problems apart from her senility, but her uttering a curse is not a symptom of that.

To curse one’s tormentors is a perfectly normal and socially meaningful act in Cambodian society; it is called che bandasa in Khmer.

It is also used, to mention just one example, by rural people whose farmland has been grabbed with the acquiesence of the authorities.

I make no comparison between the case of a former prominent representative of the Khmer Rouge regime and cases of contemporary farmers whose land has been stolen.

I am merely saying that turning an ordinary custom for dealing with  perceived wrong into the basis for psychiatric diagnosis reveals ignorance of the cultural context. Such ignorance may be detrimental to the proper interpretation (by the court and the international press) of testimony by accused and witnesses, and thus to the international credibility of the courtroom proceedings.

As a foreign anthropologist working in Cambodia, I have relied upon Cambodian colleagues for cultural interpretation and contextualisation of statements and behaviour.

Foreign officials of the ECCC may avoid pitfalls by doing the same.

Jan Ovesen

Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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