Last week, in two short statements, the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal announced that two additional suspects had been charged in absentia for crimes against humanity and other crimes.
The notification of charges by international co-investigating judge Mark Harmon against Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth in Case 003 and district official Im Chaem in Case 004 comes six and a half years after the two cases were initiated.
Given that the notification of charges was not made jointly with the national co-investigating judge You Bunleng and as Cambodia’s prime minister recently reiterated government opposition to further prosecutions at the tribunal, serious questions must be asked as to where cases 003 and 004 are going.
But it is very difficult to try to answer these questions when the tribunal provides such scant public information on these two cases.
The statements announcing the charges against Meas Muth and Im Chaem were two paragraphs long and were the first public statements issued in over two years by the co-investigating judges.
In the absence of public information, Khmer Rouge victims and the Cambodian public are left to second guess and read between the lines.
In an interview with The Phnom Penh Post last week, tribunal spokesperson Lars Olsen explained that the decision to charge Meas Muth and Im Chaem in absentia was motivated in part because “it hasn’t been possible, within a reasonable time, to get any arrest warrants executed”.
This comment raises more questions than it answers.
Have arrest warrants been issued for Meas Muth and Im Chaem? Are the Cambodian police failing or refusing to execute these warrants, despite a legal obligation to do so under the UN-Cambodia agreement establishing the tribunal? And if so, what action will the tribunal take as a result?
The tribunal’s internal rules seek to strike a balance between transparency and confidentiality – outlining transparency in proceedings as a fundamental principle, while providing for confidentiality in judicial investigations.
In maintaining this balance, the co-investigating judges are given the discretion to “issue such information regarding a case under judicial investigation as they deem essential to keep the public informed of the proceedings”.
Taking Olsen’s statement at face value, if arrest warrants have been issued and the Cambodian authorities are either falling or refusing to execute them, the public should be informed.
At its inception, one of the stated advantages of the tribunal’s model was that its location in Cambodia would bring survivors closer to the criminal justice process. And while a number of victims have been granted civil party status in cases 003 and 004, victims of the Khmer Rouge span the length and breadth of the country numbering well in excess of the 1,960 civil party applications filed to date in these cases.
For the Cambodian public – including victims – to remain engaged with the tribunal and be brought closer to the criminal justice process, the co-investigating judges must lift the lid on Cases 003 and 004 and exercise their discretion to disclose information about critical developments in these cases.
Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He previously worked in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s defence support section.