Reviving one of his most frequent complaints against the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned again Thursday that war and chaos could ensue if the court continued to pursue additional cases.
In a speech at an international summit on the U.N.’s “Responsibility to Protect” anti-genocide initiative at the Sofitel Phokeethra hotel in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said the court’s investigations had “almost gone beyond the limit” and could cause former Khmer Rouge soldiers to return to the maquis and start another civil war.
“[The court] expands the scope, nearly making the people flee back into the forest. It is so. The scope has been expanded again and again. The value of peace and the cost of human lives have to be considered,” he said.
“If a war occurred, how many people would be killed?” the prime minister continued. “We have already had such an experience.”
Mr. Hun Sen, who has long insisted that no more than five Khmer Rouge figures should stand trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), has made such dire predictions before. In 2009, not long before two additional cases were opened by international prosecutors, the prime minister publicly speculated that the cases could spark a civil war that would kill “200,000 to 300,000 people.”
His public statements have led to numerous challenges from defense lawyers, who have argued that they amount to judicial interference—particularly because Cambodian court staff have refused to touch the two controversial cases, known as 003 and 004, forcing U.N. prosecutors and investigators to work on them alone.
Some U.N. jurists have even accused their Cambodian counterparts of obstructing their work on cases 003 and 004.
Still, Mr. Hun Sen’s speech Thursday comes at a crucial time. The court’s U.N. investigating judge, Mark Harmon, appears to be winding up his investigation of the cases, which have been in the hands of the Office of Co-Investigating Judges for more than five years.
Because of the strict secrecy Judge Harmon has enforced, almost no public information has been released about the status of the cases, in which the Khmer Rouge navy commander and three mid-level regime officials stand accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
ECCC prosecutors noted in a December filing that the investigations in cases 003 and 004 had been “increasingly active” in recent months.
When the investigations are finished, Judge Harmon will have to decide whether to indict some or all of the suspects, or to dismiss the cases, explaining his reasoning in a document known as a closing order.
A copy of the court’s most recent budget says that a closing order in one or both of the cases is expected by mid-2015.
Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the court, said he could not comment directly on Mr. Hun Sen’s most recent statement about civil war.
“I am not familiar with the details of the alleged statement, but generally speaking, no one should make public statements which may be perceived as an attempt to influence ongoing judicial proceedings,” the spokesman said.
Yim Phanna, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who is now governor of Anlong Veng, a district in Oddar Meanchey where the Khmer Rouge maintained its last stronghold, said after Mr. Hun Sen’s speech that he agreed with the prime minister’s assessment of the mood among former soldiers.
“The continued expanding of the scope of the case just brings concerns to us, and also we feel insecurity, especially as the expenditure will be too massive for the government to meet,” he said by telephone.
However, Om Mak, 46, from Banteay Meanchey province, who has applied to be a civil party in Case 004, said he doubted this was the case, and that he was still hoping to see suspect Im Chaem, who allegedly oversaw slave labor at a dam where Mr. Mak’s mother worked, brought to trial.
“I don’t think it will bring war to the country if the Khmer Rouge tribunal expands the scope to bring more former Khmer Rouge to trial,” he said. “Nobody would flee into the forest, and people have no capacity to find weapons to cause insecurity for the country. It’s [Mr. Hun Sen] who can make war, not villagers or former Khmer Rouge.”
Also in Thurday’s speech, Mr. Hun Sen criticized former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who was in attendance at the summit, for a harsh editorial the ex-diplomat wrote last year in which he accused the prime minister and ruling party of serious human rights abuses.
“I don’t know what illness you have that caused you to criticize me last year,” Mr. Hun Sen said, addressing Mr. Evans directly. “But I don’t know if His Excellency Gareth Evans did say so or if the newspaper just printed it.”
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace)