Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Khmer Rouge tribunal may collapse

Bones from Cambodia's 'Killing Fields'

Radio Netherlands Worldwide
By Johan van Slooten

Before its first verdict has even been reached some observers fear the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia may collapse because of interference by the Cambodian government.
Dutch lawyer Victor Koppe is defending Nuon Chea, one of the highest ranking officials of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge regime which ruled - and ravaged - the country and its people with a hard hand in the 1970s.

Mr Koppe has just returned from Cambodia after witnessing the first two weeks of the trial against former Khmer Rouge leader Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.
Confessions and corruption
Although the confessions which Duch has made might be seen as a promising sign for the remainder of the trials, Mr Koppe is not so optimistic. He is worried that the tribunal may collapse, especially after last week's statement by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he said he hopes "the funds for the tribunal will dry up fast". Victor Koppe on the background to this remark:

"The official reason is that the prosecution of former Khmer Rouge figures may lead to increased unrest in some regions. Mr Hu Sen wants to prevent that. There are also accusations that the tribunal is corrupt, which in my opinion is true."

But there may be other reasons for Mr Hun Sen's objections to the tribunal, Mr Koppe suspects. Some former Khmer Rouge officers now occupy high positions in Cambodia's political establishment, including Mr Hun Sen's own party. The government has allegedly tried to influence the tribunal's judges and prosecutors about who should be prosecuted and who should go untried. "Perhaps he doesn't want to upset the applecart too much", Mr Koppe says, adding that even the judges are losing their faith in the tribunal.

Yet the long anticipated Khmer Rouge tribunal was supposed to provide a way for Cambodia to come to terms with its past. Justice and reconciliation are key factors here. Ending the trials prematurely would dent Cambodia's international reputation, Mr Koppe says:

"Bizarrely, it's Cambodia itself who asked the UN to set up the tribunal. It would be very upsetting if after one trial, the whole tribunal would be done with. It would also be very hard for the international community to swallow."

Some observers now say it would have been better for the tribunal to take place outside Cambodia. But Mr Koppe disagrees:

"I was there during the first hearing at the Duch trial and the public area was fully booked and overcrowded. You wouldn't have that if it was here in The Hague, for instance. So if the structure is solid and everyone is able and allowed to do their work properly, then Cambodia is the best place for this tribunal."

No advantage
If the tribunal were to collapse, those who are to stand trial before it - such as Victor Koppe's client Nuon Chea - would probably be worse off as a result. The Dutch lawyer explains what his client would likely face in that case:
"He would be tried by Cambodian judges rather than international ones, and we think the Cambodians are more biased ... It would lead to some kind of show trial".

Therefore, as Mr Koppe views the situation it's of key importance to both Cambodia and people such as his client that the tribunal continues its work. But it seems that this will require not only its surviving the opposition it is meeting within Cambodia but also, as the Dutch lawyer explains, its continued funding from international donors.

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