Hopeful projections for the future of Cambodia’s courts butted heads with harsh realities as Khmer Rouge tribunal officials and legal professionals gathered to discuss the legacy of the tribunal, practically within earshot of the trial of jailed Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando.
Experts spoke of the lasting domestic impact of the tribunal, which has long been pointed to as a “model court” meant to offer an example to Cambodia’s oft-maligned court system, but some saw a celebration of court’s legacy as premature, coinciding as it did with the trial of Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando—a trial that rights groups have pointed to as an embodiment of the Cambodian courts’ shortcomings.
“There’s already a lot of legacy created at the ECCC and there’s a lot more to come in the years ahead,” said keynote speaker David Scheffer, the UN-appointed special expert to the tribunal, noting that “as with all things in international justice, we have to be patient.”
Others, however, drew a stark contrast between the ECCC’s projected influence and the current realities of the judicial system in Cambodia.
“I think there is a certain irony that as this legacy conference is happening, down the road there is this high-profile politicized trial for someone we consider to be a prisoner of conscience,” said Amnesty International researcher Rupert Abbott.
“The Cambodian justice system is being apparently used to persecute critics of the government.”
Cambodian courts have come under frequent fire from rights groups.
The three-hour trial and conviction of 13 Boeng Kak land activists in May, for example, drew international criticism from NGOs and governments alike who maintained that the charges were purely political. The women were released on appeal roughly one month later, but not exonerated.
Speakers at the conference, however, echoed Scheffer’s call for patience.
ECCC acting Director of Administration Tony Kranh called attention to the potential human resources benefit of Cambodians who have cut their teeth at the tribunal cycling back into domestic practice.
“I hope that the lawyers, judges and legal staff here will become a great asset to the Cambodian legal system’s reform,” he said in a speech following Scheffer’s remarks.
Prosecutor Andrew Cayley also testified to the quality of Cambodian lawyers who have passed through the court, saying that the young attorneys would go on to improve the domestic system.
However, tribunal defence counsel Andrew Ianuzzi, while himself attesting to the credentials of his young Cambodian colleagues, said that sending excellent attorneys back into a broken system was unlikely to yield meaningful results.
“It’s business as usual in Cambodia, justice-wise,” Ianuzzi said.
“The younger lawyers are saying, ‘oh, now we know what presumption of innocence means,’” he continued, referring to the valuable learning experience the court offers its Cambodian legal staff.
“But how will these idealistic 30-year-old lawyers take that into practice as a domestic defender? It’s impossible to implement.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at [email protected]