It will likely be no sooner than June before co-prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal will appear before the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber over an ongoing disagreement about whether to investigate further Khmer Rouge suspects, international Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit wrote in a statement Friday.
Even if the Chamber sides with Mr Petit, who wants further prosecutions, new suspects are therefore unlikely to be named for several months.
Mr Petit stands in opposition to his national colleague, Chea Leang, who prefers prosecuting only the five suspects currently detained, citing risks of political instability and limited time and budget. In his statement recalling every step of the procedure since he informed the court of the disagreement Nov 18, Mr Petit said the Chamber had asked both prosecutors to answer questions about the dispute in writing by May 22.
“The Chamber directed that an oral hearing, if required, may then be held on 5 June 2009,” he wrote. “If an oral hearing is indeed scheduled, the International Co-Prosecutor shall request the Chamber to hold it, at least partially, in public.”
Asking prosecutors to answer written questions when they’ve already filed statements is unusual and not mandated by the court’s rules, said Michelle Staggs, deputy director of the Asian International Justice Initiative.
While it will not affect the ongoing trial of former S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav or the second case under investigation, it does not bode well for a potential third case, she added. Based on the amount of time past decisions have taken, the Pre-Trial Chamber can be expected to render a decision on the disagreement around August or September, she said. A third investigation, if allowed, would then take at least another year.
“You’d start a trial in September of 2010 and that’s being really optimistic, and you’re not going to hold a trial in three months,” she said, referring to the indicative end date for the court—December 2010. The tribunal is funded through the end of 2010, but could pursue its work past that date if donors come forward with more funds. Budgetary concerns should have no bearing on legal decisions, Ms Staggs added.
A public hearing, as suggested by Mr Petit, would be more transparent in explaining both the decision and the “unfortunate” delay of an issue that has been pending for five months, said Heather Ryan, tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“The way of the resolution of this issue does not help reassure the public that there is no political interference about who to prosecute,” she added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 1 said he opposed further investigations because he feared they would prompt a return to civil war. However, a survey by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in March showed a small but clear majority of Cambodians favored prosecuting more suspects.
The court has come under criticism for being too slow in prosecuting aging former Khmer Rouge. Though it was never officially acknowledged, sources familiar with preliminary investigations said Mr Petit was hoping to name six more suspects. Among them was Van Rith, minister of commerce of Democratic Kampuchea, who died quietly in November without ever being prosecuted.