Just an hour after the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s new Swiss co-investigating judge announced yesterday that he had arrived in Phnom Penh to take up his duties, his Cambodian counterpart issued a statement insisting that the judge was not allowed to begin working.
The dueling press statements were just the latest manifestation of simmering dysfunction within the court, and especially the Office of Co-Investigating Judges, which has been decimated by fallout from its handling of two cases opposed by the government.
Since the shock resignation of former Co-Investigating Judge Siegfried Blunk in mid-October, tribunal observers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his replacement, Reserve Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, a former financial crimes investigator. It is generally understood that Judge Kasper-Ansermet will take a more aggressive approach to investigating the two government-opposed cases than his predecessor, who seemed inclined to let them quietly drop.
Judge Kasper-Ansermet is still technically a reserve judge, as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy has not yet convened to formally appoint him despite a request from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In yesterday’s press release, the judge’s first public statement from his new position, he revealed that he had been working for the tribunal since Nov. 14.
“After having executed his mandate by remote means from abroad since 14 November in accordance with ECCC Internal rule 14(6), the international reserve Co-Investigating Judge has now assumed his office in Phnom Penh,” Judge Kasper-Ansermet wrote using the third person.
He added that he would “undertake any necessary investigative/judicial actions” and “endeavor to keep the public sufficiently informed about major developments in Case Files 003 and 004.”
An hour later, Cambodian Co-Investigating Judge You Bunleng issued a testy riposte, apparently unhappy that Judge Kasper-Ansermet had issued his statement “without any consultation with the national co-investigating judge.”
Judge Bunleng said he had met Judge Kasper-Ansermet in their office on Monday and told him he was not allowed to begin working until he was officially appointed by the Supreme Council.
“For that reason, any procedural action taken by Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet is not legally valid,” he said.
Lars Olsen, a UN spokesman for the tribunal, declined to comment on the discrepancy between the two judges’ statements but noted: “The reserve judge is here and he is working.”
The tribunal’s website has been updated to say that Judge Kasper-Ansermet “has assumed all functions in his capacity as reserve Co-Investigating Judge pending his permanent appointment.”
By law, meetings of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy are convened by Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vattana. In addition to the King and the justice minister, the council comprises prominent jurists including the heads and prosecutors-general of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. The president of the Court of Appeal is You Bunleng, the co-investigating judge, while the prosecutor-general of the Supreme Court is tribunal Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang. Ms. Leang, Judge Bunleng and Mr. Vong Vattana could not be reached for comment.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was unaware of any government opposition to the new judge’s appointment.
“That one is beyond my knowledge, my friend,” he said. “Only the ECCC and the Supreme Council make those decisions. Their decision is their decision, and the responsibility is not involved with the government. Don’t get the feeling that our government has put his or her hand in this decision.”
Clair Duffy, a lawyer who monitors the court for the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, noted that Judge Blunk had worked alongside his own predecessor, Marcel Lemonde, for a month before being officially appointed in December 2010. Judge Bunleng voiced no concern with the arrangement at that time.
“This all comes back to a very troubling issue,” she added, “which is that the UN has forged ahead without addressing these issues of political interference in the work of that office by the government head-on, and we’re already seeing a huge contention between the two judges before his arrival has even been officially announced.”