Time to Acknowledge Obstruction of Khmer Rouge Prosecutions

NEW YORK—International officials working with the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia must publicly acknowledge that the Cambodian government is now deliberately obstructing the court’s work, or risk undermining its integrity and reputation, according to a new report from the Open Society Justice Initiative released this week.

In its latest survey of recent developments at the court, the Justice Initiative highlights the failure of Cambodia’s judicial police to execute an arrest warrant against either of two individuals charged on March 3 with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Subsequently, the court announced that the two accused, Im Chaem and Meas Muth, had been charged in absentia. This procedure is not provided for in the rules of the court, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

On Friday, March 27, the office of the international co-prosecutor announced that a third suspect, Ao An, or Ta An, had also been charged. However, unlike Muth and Chaem, An appeared voluntarily at the tribunal to hear the charges. A court spokesman told the Phnom Penh Post that An “was summonsed, appeared before the judge and he was informed about the charges against him.”

The filing of charges permits the three, through their lawyers, to have access to their case file and to participate in the ongoing investigations against them.

The Justice Initiative report notes that both Im Chaem and Meas Muth could be easily located for arrest, since they have been giving interviews to the media, and that the defiance of the judicial police “makes a mockery of the ECCC.” It adds:

“While this refusal to honor legitimate orders of the ECCC is troubling, the failure of the UN and the court’s international officials to address or even fully acknowledge such political interference is even more appalling.”

The cases against Meas Muth (known as Case 003) and Ao An, Im Chaem and one other individual not yet charged(Case 004), have been vigorously opposed by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. Cambodian court officials have stopped cooperating with efforts by the international court officers to advance the two cases.

The Justice Initiative report warns that failing to fully disclose the facts surrounding the failure to arrest those charged risks:

  1. diminishing the integrity and reputation of the entire court;
  2. providing a vivid demonstration to Cambodian domestic courts of caving in to political interference;
  3. showing that the UN is not committed and able to uphold principles of judicial independence; and
  4. deepening Cambodians’ cynicism about the prospect of judicial or rule of law reform in their country.

The nine-page report also reviews developments in the current trial of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the four top Khmer Rouge leaders originally charged in the court’s Case 002 (of the two others, Ieng Sary died in 2013; his wife Ieng Thirith was declared unfit for trial in 2011).

It expresses concern that reduced international funding has diminished efforts by the court to keep Cambodians informed about the trial.

It also notes that the addition of statements from 155 new witnesses imposes a considerable burden on both the court and the defense team, and may result in a move to delay proceedings.

Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were  given life prison sentences in 2014 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from events around the forced evacuation of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, after the Khmer Rouge victory of April, 1975. They are now before a second trial, on charges including responsibility for genocide of members of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim populations, mass rape and forced marriage and other crimes.

The Justice Initiative has been monitoring the work of the tribunal since before it began operations in 2007, as part of its work to ensure accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.