International Khmer Rouge Prosecutor Robert Petit said Monday he had failed to agree with his Cambodian counterpart Chea Leang over whether to begin the investigation of more suspects and has sought the arbitration of judges to resolve the impasse.
A statement describing the disagreement over further investigations of Khmer Rouge suspects was submitted last week to the tribunal’s five-judge Pre-Trial Chamber, which is to decide whether the prosecutions will go forward, Petit and Chea Leang said in a joint statement Monday.
Word of a possible disagreement between the prosecutors arose last month when court officials said the tribunal’s international prosecutors had identified new Khmer Rouge suspects but that Cambodian Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang hesitated to make a formal explanation of her reasons for opposing new prosecutions.
Officials familiar with the discussions said last week that international prosecutors had identified as many as six new regime suspects, while Cambodian prosecutors feel additional prosecutions could provoke unrest in the country, and have cited the current military standoff with Thailand at Preah Vihear temple in justifying their opposition.
For reasons of confidentiality, Monday’s statement from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the official name of the tribunal, did not disclose any details concerning the proposed new investigations.
In an e-mail Monday, Petit said the facts had spurred him to seek a resolution to the disagreement.
“I have initiated this process after a review of the available evidence has led me to conclude that further investigations and prosecutions of crimes and suspects are warranted. As for my colleague’s position, you will have to ask her,” Petit wrote.
Chea Leang could not be reached Monday and tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said Chea Leang had no comment beyond Monday’s statement.
Since 2007, prosecutors at the tribunal have forwarded the names of only five Khmer Rouge suspects to judicial investigators, who have arrested and charged all five and indicted one.
In June, the two prosecutors’ positions appeared to diverge when Petit said in an interview he intended to open new investigations, a fact of which Chea Leang said she was unaware.
If allowed, the new investigations called for by Petit would undermine the view, widely held in some areas, that the court has restricted itself to trying a symbolic handful of defendants most prominently associated with the former regime.
The adjudication process now in motion due to the co-prosecutors’ disagreement was first proposed during tribunal negotiations in 2000 as a mechanism against the possibility of political interference.
According to the court’s founding law and internal procedures, the investigations sought by Petit will proceed unless four of the Pre-Trial Chamber’s five judges, including at least one foreign judge, choose to stop them.
While observers have said additional prosecutions are necessary to maintain the court’s credibility, Cambodian officials have openly stated their belief that only the current five detainees will be tried and that broader investigations could upset the fragile peace achieved with the Khmer Rouge’s negotiated surrender 10 years ago.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said in 1999 that only “four or five” senior leaders would be tried, and in January officials in the former rebel stronghold of Pailin said local residents were alarmed by reports that more than five people would be put on trial.
Petit on Monday cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that the current impasse is connected to politics.
“Unless there is a factual basis for this assumption you cannot conclude that a disagreement between prosecutors about the application of the law to evidence and the exercise of prosecutorial discretion is anything other then a legitimate difference of opinion,” he wrote.
“The [Pre-Trial Chamber] will resolve this difference by doing just that: interpreting and applying the law in light of the evidence.”
Court procedures say the Pre-Trial Chamber’s hearings and decision will be confidential. However, by law the court’s Office of Administration is required to publish the decision and any dissenting opinions.
Reach Sambath said it was “too early to comment” on whether the decisions will be made public, adding that the Chamber will need time to prepare for any hearing on the matter.
“Since this matter is very significant, I think the judges at the [Pre-Trial Chamber] will have to study thoroughly before hearing the case,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)