Council Passes Khmer Rouge Law to King

After months of delay but only two hours of discussion, the Constitutional Council Tuesday approved the second draft of a law that would establish a tribunal for leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Only seven of the nine council members voted. Chao Senkosal Chhum was absent due to illness, while Son Soubert was overseas, Council Chairman Bin Chhin said.

Bin Chhin refused to say how many members voted in favor or against the law, noting only that there were “more than five persons, but not 100 percent of voters” who approved it.

Most observers saw the council’s approval as a positive, if cautious, step forward. The law, which has been delayed for the last six months because of a technical error, will now be sent to King Norodom Sihanouk for his ap­proval. The king is expected to give that approval.

The council rejected the law six months ago, declaring Article 3 unconstitutional because it made a reference to the death penalty, which is outlawed in Cambodia. The government took six months to correct the error.

If the King gives his approval, negotiations between the UN and Cambodian government over the actual scope and makeup of the tribunal will resume. The UN and the government must sign an agreement before the trial can begin.

Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), welcomed the council’s approval, saying “it is another important step.”

“About 30 percent of the whole process in establishing a Khmer Rouge tribunal has been completed. But there may be more obstacles on the way ahead,” he said.

The Cambodian government and the UN have reached an understanding on some points. The tribunal is expected to be held in Cambodia before a panel of five judges, two of whom will come from international courts. The international judges will likely have the power to reverse decisions by the Cambodian judges they believe do not meet international standards. The UN’s legal office in New York will be reviewing the law.

As yet, the UN has no translation of the law.

“The primary goal will be a continuity of the negotiations that have been started. The UN would like to see that international norms [of justice] are maintained,” said Suryah Dhungel, the acting officer in charge of the UN’s Cambodia office.

It was too soon to say when negotiations might begin, he said.

Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, was pessimistic about the tribunal’s future, regardless of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statement that he would like a trial to start before the end of the year.

“Big obstacles remain here. Since 1997 our leaders haven’t had a clear political will to hold a trial” of the Khmer Rouge’s leaders, he said.

Only Monday, Lao Mong Hay said, Hun Sen expressed concern that a trial would have a negative effect on investment in Cambodia.

“If he was serious [about a trial] he would not say this. This shows that the leader doesn’t want a trial and wants to drag the time to let the Khmer Rouge leaders die away,” Lao Mong Hay said.

The process of the tribunal’s creation also came under attack by Senator Mitch McConnell from the US state of Kentucky, who claimed that Hun Sen had little interest in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

But US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann defended the tribunal law and said he did not foresee any problems in UN negotiations with Cambodia.

“This is not second-rate justice. [UN human rights official] Peter Leuprecht only a month ago said that although he might not draft the law as it is, it is nevertheless a good basis for justice and he supports it,” Wiedemann said.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the organization collecting Khmer Rouge documents likely to be used in the trial, gave his own cautious welcome to the council’s approval.

“We can’t say this approval will bring no problems. However we can say the process is getting closer to the point. We don’t welcome it fully until the King finally signs the law,” he said.

Youk Chhang said an old Khmer proverb was applicable:

“When our boat gets close to shore, and we get so happy that we stand up, we make the boat capsize, and we drown,” he said.

 

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