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Judge rift at tribunal continues

Judge rift at tribunal continues

Clashes between international and national co-investigating judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal have once again come to the fore, with the pair publicly disagreeing over the standing of government-opposed Case 003.

The status of the controversial case against two military commanders has remained in question since last February, when then-international co-investigating judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet re-opened the case without the consent of his national counterpart. The case had been closed by the office a year prior after only the scantest of investigations and amid allegations of political interference.

In a notice released yesterday – the first public words on Case 003’s status since Kasper-Ansermet’s fiery departure – the pair submitted separate statements. Judge Mark Harmon insisted the investigation remained open, while his national counterpart, judge You Bunleng, explained why he considered it closed.

The judges then provided a list of the crimes of which air force commander Sou Met and navy commander Meas Muth are accused, along with a list of crime sites. In decisions released last year by Kasper-Ansermet, the two are alleged to have imprisoned, tortured and overseen executions.

Meas Muth likely ran a forced work site, administered internal purges, and sent prisoners to face certain torture and death at S-21. Sou Met is believed to have run a notorious security centre and overseen construction of the Kampong Chhnang airport, where workers regularly died of starvation and overwork, and suicides occurred weekly.

Ostensibly, the announcement that the case remains open would allow for robust investigation of the crimes, civil party applications and complainant filings. But the international-national split suggests that little forward motion should be expected, said Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor at the Open Society Justice Initiative. 

“It is theoretically possible that a case could be fully investigated and even proceed to trial over the disagreement of the national co-investigating judge. However, the history in Case 003 . . . foreshadows that there will be huge hurdles for the case to follow the normal process to completion,” she added.

It remains unclear to what extent Harmon has managed to investigate either Case 003 or the similarly opposed Case 004 in the four months since he took the post. The original 2012-2013 budget – released toward the end of Kasper-Ansermet’s tenure – approved funding for approximately 100 field missions estimated to be necessary. Blocked from accessing drivers and translators, the judge managed to complete only 11 by the time he left. The revised budget, which was issued Tuesday, makes no mention of field visits, and a court spokesman refused to say how many missions had been budgeted for or how many Harmon has undertaken.   

While Kasper-Ansermet informed both suspects of the charges last year, only one has counsel, and those lawyers have faced significant obstacles – including being completely blocked from the case file – as they seek to draw up a defence.

“We are of the position that all suspects are entitled at this stage of the investigation to have legal counsel, adequate facilities to meaningfully provide assistance and full access to the case file,” defence lawyer Michael Karnavas wrote in an email, adding that neither he nor his national co-lawyer have been officially processed, though both have been appointed for months.

“It is regrettable that we have been waiting nearly 10 months for the assignment. We do believe this and the lack of access to the case file have impacted our client. None of this bodes well for the image of the UN. So much for the claim of adhering to international standards at the ECCC.”

The government, for its part, has been unwavering on its stance.

Yesterday morning, at roughly the same time the judges’ statement was being released, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An opened a two-day international forum on the prevention of genocide.

In a speech delivered to diplomats, international lawyers and university professors, Sok An – who is also chairman of the Royal Government Task Force on the Khmer Rouge Trials – gave an impassioned argument on behalf of the ECCC.

At times veering into the technical, the speech detailed the tribunal’s origins, successes and challenges. For several minutes, he spoke about the Duch case, 001, and the current case against the regime’s top living leaders, 002.

Perhaps tellingly, not a single mention was made of further cases.