Disorder in the court

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am

The former leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, with the blood of the 1975-1979 genocide victims on their hands, are resting easy: their chances of ever going to jail for their misdeeds are minimal, if that. Prime Minister Hun Sen's government has good reason for ensuring they never face trial, and it is doing its best to get its way.

There is ample evidence that justice in Cambodia can be swift when those in power want it to be: political opponents of Hun Sen and others deemed obstructive to his autocratic rule have in recent years been accused, tried and sentenced in a matter of weeks.

Almost one-third of the three-year time frame the United Nations allotted for a Khmer Rouge tribunal has already passed, and squabbling is still taking place on the not-so-fine points. The latest road block thrown up is a demand for exorbitant fees for foreign lawyers.

Cambodia's Bar Association wants a US$500 membership fee from each lawyer from overseas, a further US$2,000 if they are chosen to help a client, and another US$200 a month to work in the country. Yet it is essential that the tribunal has a foreign component of judges and lawyers, given the country's corrupt judicial system. Two-dozen legal and non-governmental groups protested to the association about the fees this week. The demands have put in further doubt the possibility of cases starting this year.

This follows wrangling that has continued - since the government and UN agreed to the tribunal in 2003 - on a host of other issues, including: which legal system to use, how many Cambodian and foreign judges should sit and just who should face trial.

About 10 defendants are expected to be indicted but, because they are elderly, they are more likely to die of natural causes than face a judge. Senior Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok died on July 21 last year, aged 80.

Holding the tribunal is essential for the sake of Cambodians. Few of the almost 15 million people have been untouched by the genocide, which left up to 2 million dead. Truth and reconciliation - determining the guilt of those blamed for the killings - would lay to rest the ghosts of the past and finally let the nation move ahead.

But that is not in the interests of Hun Sen's government. This is principally because some of his colleagues might be implicated, and either forced to be witnesses or stand trial themselves. Then, there is that 'lost' period in Cambodian history, between the 1979 downfall of the Khmer Rouge and the 1990 departure of invading Vietnamese forces.

Historians are discouraged from writing about this time, when Hun Sen emerged from the Khmer Rouge's ranks to become foreign minister, then prime minister, of the Vietnamese-controlled government.

Like the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a host of other legal matters have been stalled or gone unresolved. They include legal action related to a grenade attack a decade ago on a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, which left 14 dead; and to the extra-judicial killings of 40 members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party coalition partner, Funcinpec.

The judicial system has little excuse for not acting quickly. For the past 16 years, it has been given international help through training and resources. Proof that trials can be swift can be found in the way that former opposition leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh has been dealt with by the courts. Ousted as the head of Funcinpec in October and sued for embezzlement, he was found guilty and sentenced in absentia, on March 14, to 18 months' jail. On Monday he was charged with adultery, which was made a criminal offence last year.

Then there is the case of Heng Peo, the former chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police and a one-time adviser to Hun Sen. He was sentenced in absentia last September to 18 years in jail for orchestrating the murder of a judge in 2003. He was located in Malaysia and extradited.

There is clearly a lack of will to deal with former Khmer Rouge leaders - and Cambodians will remain the victims while this persists.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.