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Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal in crisis
Suspicion, infighting and angry resignations have plagued the panel, the one employee calls a “toxic atmosphere of mutual distrust.” Can this panel still find full justice for the estimated 1.7 millio
Question of the Day
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — It was supposed to be a model for international justice and national reconciliation: a U.N.-backed tribunal to hold trials in one of the 20th century’s grimmest chapters - the Khmer Rouge’s murderous 1970s regime in Cambodia.
Eight years after its creation, however, the multinational panel is riven by suspicion, infighting and angry resignations about whether to try more Khmer Rouge defendants on war crimes charges, in addition to the jailer already convicted and four top officials scheduled for trial Monday.
Critics fear that the panel is caving to pressure from Cambodia’s strongman prime minister - himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre - to quash any further indictments, or that the United Nations‘ resolve to continue the trials may be waning.
The tussle raises questions about whether the panel can find full justice for the estimated 1.7 million people who were killed, starved, worked to death or died of disease in the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge’s savage 1975-1979 rule.
“The integrity of the [tribunal] hangs in the balance,” warned former U.S. war crimes ambassador David Scheffer, who helped establish the court.
One of five panel employees who recently quit in frustration, London-based researcher Stephen Heder, chastised investigative judges in his resignation letter for what he described as closing the case on the additional suspects “effectively without investigation.”
Mr. Heder also cited the “toxic atmosphere of mutual distrust” at what he called “a professionally dysfunctional office” of the tribunal’s investigating judges, according to a copy of the letter obtained this week by the Associated Press.
The United Nations weighed in Tuesday, with the chief spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly supporting the panel and its impartiality.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government sought the United Nations‘ help in the late 1990s to create the tribunal, though he didn’t want a fully international court, like the one for the former Yugoslavia.
Despite misgivings from negotiators, the final agreement in 2003 set up a hybrid system, with Cambodian and international judges and prosecutors working with Cambodian and international laws, under French-style rules.
“I did not want … the U.N. emblem to be given to an entity that did not, shall we say, represent the highest international standards,” Hans Corell, the chief U.N. negotiator at the time, told the AP. “But, of course, what we predicted seems to have developed into the problem that we were concerned would occur.”
Prosecutors have compiled substantial evidence for so-called Cases 003 and 004, which include two top military commanders who also were top officials in Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge military, according to confidential court documents obtained by the AP. The documents allege that both took part in purges that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
The government, however, has openly stonewalled. The prime minister told Mr. Ban last year that new cases would “not be allowed.”
Mr. Hun Sen has warned that new cases could spark renewed civil war, though his opposition likely stems from the many Khmer Rouge officials, like himself, who are now in government and who fear investigators could dredge up new evidence of war crimes.
“The Cambodian government has been forthright all along that there would be no new cases,” said Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches the Khmer Rouge. “It’s the failure of the United Nations to act that’s been surprising.”
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