Claiming to know that the Cambodian government has interfered in the work of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, lawyers for Brother Number Two Nuon Chea charged on Wednesday that the court’s offices of the co-prosecutors and co-investigating judges may be in breach of the law and a UN treaty.
The claims appeared in letters to UN and Cambodian prosecutors and investigating judges and opened another line of attack after the defense on Tuesday accused the head of the tribunal’s victims unit of being politically unsuited for her job.
Defense lawyer Michiel Pestman said Wednesday that he could not reveal the source of his information on government interference, only that it was recently obtained.
In separate letters on Wednesday to the tribunal’s UN Prosecutor Robert Petit and Cambodian Prosecutor Chea Leang, Mr Pestman and fellow lawyer Victor Koppe said that Ms Leang had received government instructions to oppose further prosecutions of former Khmer Rouge regime officials.
A dispute between Mr Petit, who favors more investigations, and Ms Leang, who does not, over whether to pursue more Khmer Rouge suspects is currently the subject of confidential arbitration at the court.
The defense lawyers further charged that Mr Petit was aware of this alleged interference in the tribunal and therefore his office may be in breach of the court’s founding statute and UN treaty.
Similar letters to UN Investigating Judge Marcel Lemonde and his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng cited a recent report by the Open Society Justice Initiative that alleged that the government is preventing judicial investigators from interviewing witnesses who currently hold positions of power, something both judges have denied.
Now in his second year of detention, Nuon Chea, 82, is likely the lead defendant in an investigation in which prosecutors say he and four Khmer Rouge regime co-defendants are jointly responsible for as many as 2.2 million deaths.
Mr Pestman said that the resolution of the prosecutor’s disagreement was less important to his client’s fair trial rights than the possibility of government interference.
“If our information is correct… and if the international side is aware of it, they cannot stay silent,” he said. “They should at least inform the parties.”
Mr Petit, Ms Leang and Mr Lemonde declined to comment. Mr Bunleng said he was too busy to talk to a reporter.
At a press conference held earlier Wednesday, however, Ms Leang rejected the claims, also leveled in recent months by NGOs and human rights workers, that she was not independent of the government.
“I have tried hard to fulfill my duties,” she said, adding that Cambodian law allowed prosecutors to consider social conditions as part of their decisions on whether to pursue prosecutions.
“I don’t agree with you that you said there is pressure from the government or interference from any people outside, because according to our laws, this court is the independent court,” she said.
Mr Petit said he believed politics should not prevent legitimate prosecutions. “I believe that the cases that I want to put forward fall within the jurisdiction of this court,” he said. “Any other considerations, including political ones, should certainly not influence or override those prosecutions.”
Mr Petit said he doubted that additional prosecutions would cause unrest in the country, as is frequently argued by those who wish to limit further investigations. “I don’t believe that anyone in this country after so many years of peace is ready to take to the bush over some old mass murderers,” he said.
Ms Leang said she believed that public remarks in March by Prime Minister Hun Sen, in which he said that he would prefer to see the tribunal fail than proceed with additional prosecutions because they could bring civil war, were not inappropriate.
“I think it is his right to speak,” Ms Leang said of the premier. “But his speech is not related to our proceedings here, especially whether we conduct investigations or not.”
Both co-prosecutors told reporters that the tribunal’s Pre-Trial Chamber had decided not to hold a hearing on their disagreement, but would rather make their decision based on the written reports submitted to the chamber by the two prosecutors.