KING Norodom Sihanouk wasted no time in signing the Khmer Rouge tribunal law last
week, five years after the defection of former KR foreign minister Ieng Sary. That
event heralded the end of the movement as a political force.
The King's signature paves the way for the trial of those alleged responsible for
torture and killings committed during the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime.
While the UN, donors and NGOs responded with cautious optimism at the announcement,
some warned that the proposed trial faced a range of obstacles before it gains UN
However, Minister for the Council of Ministers, Sok An, told reporters that the government
wanted to expedite the process and said he expected to meet UN chief legal counsel
Hans Corell in Phnom Penh in September.
"We sent a letter to Corell stating that we have no intention of delaying the
trial. We are waiting on him for discussions on how cooperation should be organized,"
said Sok An.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's advisor, Om Yentieng, highlighted the urgency of arranging
the trial before Ta Mok, a former commander, and Duch, former head of S-21, had to
be released. The men are due to be freed in March and May next year respectively,
when their three-year legal detention period ends.
However analysts said that the men could still be charged with other offenses and
believed the UN would not be pressured by their release dates.
US Ambassador Kent Wiede-mann agreed that the deadline was not a major stumbling
Sok An's meeting with Corell could be delayed, however. Earlier this week Corell
said that agreement on the MoU might have to wait since he was engaged in negotiations
for a similar trial in the African state of Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his first speech on the topic since the King
signed the law, emphasized the limited nature of the prosecutions and said former
KR commanders had nothing to fear from a tribunal.
"Charges will only be brought against the ten or more who were most responsible
during the DK regime. It is not necessary for you to go back to the jungle and protect
your people," the Prime Minister said at a bridge opening ceremony in Pursat
The UN has a copy of the previous legislation- which contains reference to the death
penalty - but said it would not act until it received an 'official translation' of
the updated law.
"The ball is still in the gov-ernment's court to send a copy of the text,"
said Suriya Dungel of the UN Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Post understands that the text will not be sent until both the English and French
translations are approved, probably within a few days.
In January, Corell sent a letter to Sok An listing a range of objections to elements
contained in the tribunal law. None of the objections was addressed in the legislation,
and the Cambodian government has repeatedly declared that the law would not be changed.
That leaves negotiations on the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) as the UN's last
avenue to have its concerns addressed. Wiedemann said that the sticking points remained
the same, but said he was confident they would be easily resolved during face-to-face
negotiations between the UN and the government.
"At the time that the UN posed those questions, it said that none of them were
deal breakers," he said. "I take that to mean there were no substantive
issues [and] that they were mostly questions of language."
Among the objections contained in Corell's letter were that the articles failed to
clarify the right of the accused to choose their own legal counsel, as well as ambiguities
regarding the appointment of judges, prosecutors and the tribunal's deputy director.
If an agreement is reached the UN will form a trust fund and seek contributions from
member states to fund the trial. Although the UN has not released any costings for
the trial, analysts said that it would probably be similar to that of the mixed war
crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, which is expected to cost $56 million over three
Wiedemann said that while the UK, Japan, Australia and others have indicated support
for the trial, agreement between the UN and the government was a likely prerequisite
for substantial international assistance.
Hun Sen, however, has adopted a take it or leave it approach to the UN's participation
in any trial, saying that if agreement could not be reached Cambodia would hold the
trial without the UN's assistance. Wiedemann thought it likely that the UN would
"If they did [hold the trial alone] it would not have much credibility. I doubt
that they could," he said.
Prosecution of former KR foreign minister Ieng Sary remains the biggest hurdle to
an agreement. Corell's letter insisted on a paragraph giving the tribunal jurisdiction
to prosecute any person regardless of previous amnesties, a direct reference to Sary.
Wiedemann was confident this would be easily resolved.
"That issue has been dealt with before and I'd speculate that the UN just wants
to make doubly sure that [the commitment] still stands," he said. "Hun
Sen has said numerous times that no tribunal would be truly credible without the
trial of Ieng Sary."
In a statement released this week, British Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw said
his government welcomed the final approval of the legislation.
"The Cambodian government should ensure that [the tribunal] is allowed to operate
as effectively as possible, not least by ensuring that all surviving members of the
Khmer Rouge leadership at last account for their actions," he said.