The government’s most powerful lawmaking body on Thursday passed a much-anticipated draft law on how to try one-time leaders of the Khmer Rouge, despite harsh criticism by local human rights groups that the law does not go far enough to ensure the court will be independent of political influences.
The UN also has made it clear it still has serious concerns about the draft. It wants substantial changes before it will support the proposed tribunal, the Associated Press reported.
Minister of Cabinet Sok An, however, said the government would forward the draft to the National Assembly as early as next week.
While saying the government could not wait for the UN, he conceded great strides have been made, even at the last minute during Thursday’s Council of Ministers meeting, to bring the law up to international standards.
“This law is, I hope, pretty satisfactory to the UN and international lawyers because it was made very thoroughly to be in conformity with international standards,” Sok An said during a news briefing. “There are legislative bodies…where [the UN] can lobby” for changes, he added, referring to the Assembly and the Senate.
Among the changes is a provision to allow independent foreign jurists to participate in the trial even if the UN does not agree to participate.
“We by no means want to block the participation of international judges and prosecutors. Through this draft law, we are very liberal and open,” Sok An said.
The cabinet also discussed the legal differences between the French-Cambodian system and the Anglo legal system favored by the US and Britain.
In the former, prosecutorial powers are divided among an investigating judge and a prosecutor, whereas the latter grants more power to the prosecutor.
Sok An said the ministers agreed to forge a hybrid of the two systems in which the investigating judge could demand the prosecutor question certain suspects.
Under the government’s current plan, the trial’s staff would employ “co-prosecutors,” one foreign and one Cambodian, where all decisions to indict suspects would have to be mutual.
Despite the air of compromise at cabinet chambers on Thursday afternoon, a consortium of 17 legal and human rights groups late Wednesday released an attack on the government draft law, alleging some elements of the plan still are too vague.
Although the government plan would allow for UN consultation when it appoints Cambodian judges to the court, the statement said the UN should appoint all jurists.
“Cambodia has a history of politically influence judicial appointment….UN-controlled appointment for all key tribunal posts, whether foreign or Cambodian, is essential,” the statement read.
It also noted that not enough provisions were included in the draft to protect the rights of the accused.
“The draft law should be very clear that suspects have the right to counsel free of charge, and this includes foreign counsel,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, one of the statement’s signatories.
In earlier versions of the government draft, little mention was made about suspects’ rights. But the current version spells out protection of suspects and their right to counsel.
Since the government began deliberations with the UN over whether to hold a national or international trial of one-time Khmer Rouge leaders, officials have maintained that Cambodian jurists should hold a majority on the trial.
According to the current plan, the primary court would employ three Cambodian judges and two foreign judges. While the government first sought funding from the UN for the entire process, it since has backed off and now pledges to pay for Cambodian jurists from the national budget.
One analyst on Thursday expressed veiled relief that the trial might soon be under way.
“It’s important that Cambodia has to take the first bold step to really make a statement that they will move ahead on this trial,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “At the same time, we should not be excluding anyone who may have an important role to play.”