By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 2, 2007
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- When a sprawling courthouse was inaugurated on the outskirts of this capital last year, it was largely welcomed by Cambodians, who expressed hope that one day the leaders of the Khmer Rouge would sit inside, squirm in the docks and face comeuppance for overseeing the brutal deaths of as many as 1.7 million people a quarter-century ago.
Today, however, the hopes of many Khmer Rouge victims have turned to frustrations.
Rather than providing a promised airing of truth, the proceedings have become mired in a debate over legal standards that has delayed indictments and pushed back the start of the trials by months. Some observers now fear the dispute could derail the trials altogether.
At stake is the best chance for a reckoning of a regime that presided over the systematic mass murder of its own people with a fervor still little understood. On a radical communist crusade to create a peasant society free from foreign influence, the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 executed, tortured and starved to death Cambodians -- particularly the educated, moneyed and devout.
Last Friday, a multinational tribunal of Cambodian and United Nations-appointed judges, prosecutors and defenders said it had failed to resolve all of its differences over the adoption of internationally accepted legal procedures for the trials.
"We need to adopt codes for these trials that would let us do our jobs independently, but until they are, it is hard to envision a way to even begin these trials," said Rupert Skilbeck, the United Nations' principal defender assigned to the tribunal.
Critics say that by rebuffing across-the-board international standards, the Cambodian government is effectively trying to exert political control over the trials in a bid to limit the scope of information that will be publicly aired. The negotiations have grown so tense that senior diplomats here say U.N. officials have indicated they may simply walk out.
Human rights groups are assailing the Cambodian government for stacking the court with judges who have close ties to the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In a nation where several current and high-ranking government officials have still-unclear links to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, critics say the government's failure to appoint more independent-minded judges has gravely damaged its credibility.
Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's despotic leader, died a free man in 1998. And many of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders -- including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's chief deputy, known as "Brother Number Two" -- are aged.
"There are still former Khmer Rouge people out there, living safe lives in Cambodia as if they had done nothing wrong," said Sok Chea, 40, whose father, the scion of a wealthy family, was seized and killed by Khmer Rouge troops in 1975. Like thousands of others, Sok was relocated by the Khmer Rouge to a communal farm, and for four years, she faced bouts of starvation, torture and rape.
"I thought we might be close to justice," she said. "But now I am no longer sure. It makes me feel very tired, and very sad."
The judges for the Khmer Rouge trials were officially sworn in last July, almost a decade after the Cambodian government first approached the United Nations for cooperation and funding to launch the trials. Given the broad corruption in Cambodia's judicial system, U.N. officials had pressed for a court dominated by international judges. But they ultimately accepted a compromise in which both Cambodian and U.N.-appointed judges would sit on the same tribunal.
The Cambodian judges are in the majority. But the tribunal's rulings must be delivered with the vote of at least one foreign judge.
In acrimonious meetings in November, however, the judges failed to agree on basic rules of legal procedures to start the trials. U.N. officials have pushed for international standards -- including independent roles for prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as a more complete witness protection program. The Cambodians have argued that accepting all such demands would amount to a violation of their sovereignty.
"We wish that those entities who constantly look at the process in a negative way [would] take more balanced views on their stands by trying not to blackmail the Cambodian judiciary system, sovereignty and national honor," Chea Sim, president of the Cambodian People's Party, said in a speech this month.
Now, U.N. officials say, the entire trial process is in jeopardy. The tribunal -- estimated to cost about $60 million -- has been funded for only three years.
Robert Petit, the tribunal's U.N.-appointed co-prosecutor, said in a recent interview that his team has already gathered substantial evidence and eyewitness testimony and is prepared to start issuing indictments "tomorrow." But it cannot do so until the Cambodian-controlled court agrees to accept international standards.
Observers say the probes launched by U.N.-appointed investigators may be moving far faster than the Cambodian government had counted on, particularly given that several high-ranking members of the ruling party, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, are former Khmer Rouge members who could be uneasy about such highly public trials. Although the court is likely to indict only a handful of those former Khmer Rouge members most responsible for war crimes, the testimony that could emerge could prove embarrassing for the government. Some have suggested that the Chinese, now the largest source of foreign investment here, have pressured the Cambodians to delay the trials to avoid revealing the extent of Beijing's long support of the Khmer Rouge.
"The prosecutors have moved so quickly and so well that [the Cambodian government] may be saying, 'Whoa, we need to slow this train down,' " said Joseph A. Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia. Echoing calls for the Cambodians to agree to international legal standards, he added, "We want the trial, but the only thing worse than no trial is a trial that is a farce."
Human rights organizations have argued that even if a high legal bar is adopted, the tribunal has already been compromised. One Cambodian judge on the panel led an appeals court that overturned felony charges against the prime minister's nephew. Another judge has been singled out by human rights groups for presiding over the questionable 2005 conviction of a key opposition member of parliament for anti-government activities.
"What you've seen is the government selecting some of the worst choices from the Cambodian judiciary," said Sara Colm, Cambodia director for Human Rights Watch. "Some of those who have been appointed are notorious for presiding over show trials and have track records of acting based on political instructions instead of evidence."
The Cambodian government has strongly denied allegations of political interference and has defended the quality of the judges and its right to use Cambodian law.
"Do not forget that these trials were the idea of the Cambodian government, not the international community," said Khieu Kanharith, a government spokesman and member of parliament from the People's Party. "We are determined to see these trials go ahead, and they will."
But the victims of the Khmer Rouge, who have already waited much of their lives for justice and fear that the regime's leaders might die before they face trial, are not so sure anymore.
"We were promised justice, but I am losing faith," Sok said.