- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Surviving Khmer Rouge leaders may yet escape trial in spite of a recent agreement between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the United Nations to establish a tribunal to try them for war crimes.

A deal was struck in April for the prosecution of the fanatical Khmer Rouge leaders, who ruled from 1975-79 with policies that killed up to 2 million people with bullets, disease and starvation.

But the pact is threatened by deep distrust between Hun Sen and the United Nations, dating back more than two decades to when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge and installed a Hun Sen-led government, which the world refused to recognize.

"[Any] progress that appears to be occurring is just shadows … since each side still has huge reservations about the other," said a source close to the Cambodian government.

On April 29, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, in Phnom Penh to facilitate U.N.-Cambodia talks, announced the two sides had ended months of deadlock with a deal for a joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal.

Mr. Kerry called the plan the "beginning of the last chapter of the process of accountability for the Khmer Rouge era."

But Cambodia's justice system lacks well-trained lawyers and is seen as controlled by Hun Sen, said George Chigas of the Cambodian Genocide Documentation Center.

In the fourth quarter of 1999, the League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a Phnom Penh-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), investigated 134 suspected human rights violations committed by government employees. Just 15 persons were prosecuted.

The April deal calls for co-prosecutors one Cambodian, one foreign to issue indictments, and permits Hun Sen to screen the international prosecutor.

Disputes between the prosecutors would be adjudicated by a panel of three Cambodian and two foreign judges, but four judges would be required to nullify an indictment.

Sources in Phnom Penh say U.N. officials still feel Cambodia's judiciary should not be involved at all. U.N. leaders also doubt that the co-prosecutor formula will work and fear Hun Sen will abuse his right to screen the foreign prosecutor.

"You can't have two investigating judges whose mechanism remains unclear. It could stall the process altogether" and cause chaos, Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy wrote in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

Cambodian academics predict Hun Sen will block any proactive foreign prosecutor because the prime minister is worried that an aggressive tribunal might force him to introduce the rule of law in Cambodia's courts.

Hun Sen's government, meanwhile, questions the United Nations' intentions and remains wary of any encroachment on Cambodian sovereignty.

"Of course Hun Sen mistrusts the U.N.," said Bill Herod of Phnom Penh's NGO Forum.

"He believes the U.N. has never had Cambodia's best interests at heart and that it still doesn't care about Cambodia. The U.N. just wants to set a precedent for future genocide tribunals."

The United Nations withheld recognition of Hun Sen's government during the 1980s because it disapproved of Vietnam's 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Instead, it gave Cambodia's seat to an opposition coalition that included the Khmer Rouge.

"In addition to this history, the question remains: Why should the U.N. be able to dictate to a sovereign country, to say to Cambodia, give us a blank check and we'll fill it out?" asked Mr. Herod.

U.N. officials say they are giving Cambodia an unprecedented role, noting that the U.N. Security Council did not even seek the Yugoslav government's permission to establish a tribunal on Balkan war crimes.

Hun Sen also worries that the United Nations does not understand the impact a tribunal might have on Cambodia's fragile reconciliation.

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