Case for transparency

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 12:00am

The distress felt by relatives of the three Western backpackers murdered in Cambodia is an emotion all too familiar to citizens of that country, where nearly every family was scarred by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

Although legally correct, the decision to free former guerilla commander Chhouk Rin - alleged to have led the ambush which resulted in the kidnapping and shooting of the backpackers - will heighten the worries of those who fear that Cambodia's most notorious war criminals will escape the courts. He was able to walk away, extolling the virtues of the rule of law, because he had earlier defected from the guerilla force. He qualified under a rule which gives defectors amnesty from prosecution.

But if the law was upheld, justice was denied. Absolution for past deeds is an acknowledged and effective way of healing wounds after civil conflict. But allowing people with grave accusations against them to continue to hold high positions gives a uniquely Cambodian twist to the process. It also raises unsettling questions about the true extent of Prime Minister Hun Sen's commitment to democracy and straight-dealing.

Despite the hard work and many compromises which have been tried in an effort to establish international legitimacy for the expected trial of top Khmer Rouge leaders, doubts linger over whether the case will ever come to court. A law enabling the trial to go forward was tabled in January. But if - as critics fear - the National Assembly amends it in ways unacceptable to the United Nations, the scheme could fall apart. That would leave the citizens of that shattered nation with little hope of having their sufferings redressed.

It would also give Mr Hun Sen the perfect escape clause; he could blame the UN for any breakdown. Yet however much the premier protests the independence of parliament, his party holds a majority there and it has never been known to go against his wishes. So if legislators tinker with the law in ways that impel the UN to pull out of the trial, it could only be with Mr Hun Sen's approval.

However, the premier has a great deal to gain if a UN-sanctioned trial does go ahead. It would add to the legitimacy of his rule in the eyes of the international community and hasten the country's return to normality. In the past, Mr Hun Sen has defiantly said that Cambodia has lived in isolation before and can do so again. But isolation is not easy in an increasingly globalised world. A transparent trial and a just verdict would confound the sceptics, giving him much-needed credibility as a man pledged to lead his country towards peace and justice.


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Case for transparency

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