HOPES for an international trial for Khmer Rouge leaders appeared to be dashed for
good this week, although private lobbying may continue.
The government, which remains publicly committed to a domestic trial for captured
Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok, effectively called an international tribunal a pipe dream.
"Please do not dream," said Om Yienting, a top adviser to Prime Minister
Hun Sen, at a Mar 29 seminar on KR accountability.
"Do you wait for the rains to come, or use existing water in the container?"
"Now we have existing courts in the country, why not make use of those courts?"
Asked by a conference participant why the government was going "against the
will of the people" by ruling out an international trial, an agitated Yienting
demanded: "Why are you so obsessed with the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders? We
have to make sure we do not use trials to revenge [ourselves against] the Khmer Rouge."
He also hinted at the issues which could come up in a Mok trial: "There are
other people who were on the side of the KR, both inside and outside the country,"
he noted, asking, "Where did Ta Mok get his ammunition? ... What did [KR leader]
Khieu Samphan sign in 1997 and with whom did he sign it?"
United Nations human rights envoy Thomas Hammar-berg, who has been in the forefront
of the push for an international tribunal, met with Hun Sen and justice officials
on Mar 25 to "clarify the official Cambodian position".
Hun Sen released a new letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan just hours before
his meeting with Hammarberg; the Prime Minister's letter seemingly left little for
the two to talk about.
"[A]n existing national tribunal of Cambodia should take up the case to charge
and convict Ta Mok and other Khmer Rouge leaders if found guilty of crimes of genocide
committed in Cambodia...", the Mar 24 letter reads, adding that Cambodia "welcomes
the assistance in terms of legal experts from foreign countries".
In a pre-meeting press conference, Hammarberg had expressed puzzlement about the
govern-ment's stance, noting that Hun Sen had written to the UN in Jun 97 asking
for assistance in bringing the KR to justice and admitting Cambodian courts were
not up to the standard required.
Yienting admitted that Hun Sen had changed his position due to Mok's arrest and the
collapse of the KR.
"Before the complete dissolution of the KR infrastructure, that was another
problem," he explained at the seminar. "Before the arrest of Ta Mok, there
was still a possibility of the international tribunal."
Following his three-hour meeting, with Hun Sen, Hammarberg was tight-lipped about
the discussion, although he characterized it as "civilized" at a Mar 26
He said he would report back to Annan before revealing the substance of the discussions,
but noted that Hun Sen was firm on rejecting both an international trial and a truth
"I don't want to express pessimism or optimism," Hammarberg said.
Asked if he thought the government position was final, he said: "I honestly
don't know ... the dialogue is now between the prosecutor and whoever represents
the [UN] member states."
The United States is reportedly trying to lobby veto-wielding China to reconsider
its opposition to a UN Security Council-formed tribunal.
At the same time, the Americans are trying to gather together international backers
to persuade Hun Sen to change his mind, according to Phnom Penh diplomats.
Rights groups, Hammarberg himself, and local lawyers have all slammed the Cambodian
court system, calling it politically influenced, corrupt and too weak to provide
fair trials even in ordinary criminal cases - much less in Mok's.
"I think that the Cambodian court has no power, and no justice in that case,"
said one local lawyer, who asked not to be named. "When the court is not neutral
or independent, how can it try [to give Mok a fair trial]?" asked another local
attorney, stressing a preference for an international trial.
"It would show that even after 20 years, the offenders cannot escape from justice."
Yienting dismissed concerns of the non-independence of courts. "We are not one
hundred percent perfect, but we have strictly followed the big principles. If you
think the [executive and judicial] branches are not separate. . . then Cambodia would
be a communist country."
Ang Eng Thong, president of the Cambodian Bar Association, reiterated his position
that Cambodian courts are ill-equipped to deal with Mok's trial at the NGO seminar.
He noted that there is no domestic law against either genocide or crimes against
humanity - international charges often levied against the Khmer Rouge - leaving only
smaller, less severe charges available to a domestic prosecutor.
"If we try the KR in the country, we can accuse them of destroying public security,
creating autonomous regions, killing people, fighting against the Royal Government,"
he said at the NGO seminar.
"But the crimes committed by the KR are more serious, that is, genocide and
the terrible mistreatment of Cambodians, systematic killings. This falls into the
category of crimes against humanity."
In response to a similar comment at the seminar, Yienting said: "Your concern
is justified. But. . . you attack the court before the ruling is passed; it's still