The government considered expelling the Open Society Justice Initiative, a US-based legal group that has publicized allegations of financial malpractice at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, from Cambodia, government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday.
Khieu Kanharith said the government particularly objected to an essay by OSJI Executive Director James Goldston that was distributed to several court staffers earlier this month. In the essay, Goldston repeated OSJI’s call for an investigation into allegations of corruption at the tribunal and described Prime Minister Hun Sen as a “former Khmer Rouge cadre whose commitment to genuine prosecution and due process has long been in doubt.”
Khieu Kanharith said Goldston’s comments, particularly about Hun Sen, were unacceptable.
“At that time we were considering to even expel them from the country, not just revoke their visas,” Khieu Kanharith said, though he added that he did not know if a final decision on the matter has been reached.
“This organization is politicizing the country,” he said. “They’re trying to involve everybody.”
OSJI initially sparked controversy with a Feb 14 statement that called for a thorough investigation into allegations that Cambodian staffers at the tribunal, including judges, had to kick back parts of their salaries to government officials in exchange for their positions. In response, the court’s Director of Administration Sean Visoth ceased cooperating with the group, and Cambodian judges issued a statement asking for OSJI to retract their “unsubstantiated allegation.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Tuesday that he would stand by any government decision to rebuke OSJI or cease granting visas to its foreign staffers.
“It was false [allegations] that seriously defamed the government,” he said of the group’s February statement. The UN, he added, should work with OSJI to prevent the publication of what he described as further false reports.
Heather Ryan, OSJI’s Phnom Penh-based tribunal monitor, stood by her group’s actions.
“Threats against an NGO for requesting an investigation into actions related to the court do not speak well about the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia,” she said.
Several foreign diplomats also said they would oppose OSJI being banned from the country.
“You can’t throw out monitors each time you don’t like what they say,” US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said last week.
“It won’t hurt OSJI’s reputation,” he added. “It will hurt Cambodia’s reputation. That’s why this embassy is so concerned about it.”
German Ambassador Pius Fischer said Tuesday that it would be regrettable if the group were banned.
“They did some very valuable work in assisting the Extraordinary Chambers in capacity building and outreach,” he said. “They should be able to continue their work.”
Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie said that the expulsion of OSJI could undermine the court’s credibility.
“It would have negative consequences on the court’s credibility if they—or someone—weren’t able to fill the role of international monitor,” she said.
The right of NGOs and the media to access the tribunal’s proceedings is included in Article 12 of the 2003 agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government that established the court.
Canadian co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said that “such participation is essential for the integrity of the court and any exclusion not in accordance with Article 12 of the Agreement would be detrimental to our process.”
Peter Foster, the tribunal’s UN public affairs officer, said transparency was one of the principles that underpinned the UN’s decision to take part in the tribunal.
“It’s very important for us that all NGOs have free and open access to the court,” he said.
Helen Jarvis, ECCC public affairs chief, declined comment on OSJI’s possible ouster. Co-Investigating Judge You Bunleng and Pre-Trial Chamber Judge Ney Thol also declined comment.