As government officials launch an unprecedented effort to clean up the municipal courts, observers cannot help but question how closely the move is connected to harsh international criticism that Cambodia’s courts are ill-prepared to hold what likely will be the country’s most significant trial ever.
In as little as two months, the government intends to try Khmer Rouge leaders allegedly responsible for more than 1 million deaths from 1975 to 1979—and it intends to do so in local courts dominated by local judges.
Since scrapping the idea of an international tribunal, officials from Prime Minister Hun Sen on down have sparred with international critics and asserted that Cambodia’s courts are up to the challenge of conducting a fair and credible trial.
Now, with the help of Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, they’re out to prove it, officials and analysts say.
“Chea Sophara worries about the safety of our city first,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior.
“But of course the Khmer Rouge trial is also a consideration. Cambodia cannot do it by themselves. The trial should be accepted both by Cambodia and by the international community.
“We want the international community to know that we are reforming our judicial system.”
Last week, Chea Sophara issued a scathing report alleging widespread bribe-taking among municipal court officials and called for an investigation by the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Cambodia’s highest judiciary body.
His efforts—fully backed by a directive by Hun Sen to rearrest criminals and suspects—have been both praised and criticized by legal reformers as necessary yet hasty.
Khieu Sopheak, however, defended the actions as imperative in a country ever reliant on international support.
He said it “might be difficult” for government hardliners to accept democratic reforms. “But we have to move forward,” he argued.
One Asian diplomat said this pressure to move forward often comes in the form of cash.
“You have the quarterly review by donor countries coming up in January, and you have all this criticism from donors about how the corrupt court system cannot handle the Khmer Rouge trials,” he said.
“This is to prove a point and say ‘Yes, the courts are corrupt, but we are trying to change it.’”
International donors and human rights groups repeatedly have joined together in calling for a fair and credible Khmer Rouge trial, some even suggesting that aid to Cambodia could be linked to what kind of proceedings are held.
One veteran human rights worker said she hardly could control her elation when she read that the government finally was planning to reform the courts.
But then, reality set in. “I think we realized it was too perfect to be true. We grew skeptical. Why right now he attacks the court? The corruption has been there for so long. Why now?” she said.
In addition to clearing the way for the Khmer Rouge trial, she said theories among observers abound about Chea Sophara’s motives for the court cleanup. Whether shirking his own image of alleged corruption, pegging himself for higher political aims or affirming Hun Sen’s position in the CPP, most agree Chea Sophara’s reform binge has ulterior motives.
For his part, the governor said he is but a “simple” component of the decision-making machine, and that any questions about the Khmer Rouge trial should be “transferred to Samdech Hun Sen.”
“I have proof and evidence of corruption, and this I report to the prime minister,” Chea Sophara said Tuesday.
Few question that the prime minister is behind the reform, especially after he circulated the rearrest directive last week.
The government’s spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, said reforming the courts has been on the government’s agenda in recent meetings, but he refused to link this agenda directly to the impending trial.
“We are most concerned about increasing the security in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge trial, that is being handled by different parts of government,” Khieu Kanharith said.
“So the experts say the court is corrupt. OK, now we have the evidence. We have the evidence now—on our own,” he said.
After the government in 1997 requested international assistance to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders allegedly responsible for mass atrocities, a panel of UN experts was sent here to assess the efficacy of Cambodia’s courts.
In a 62-page report issued in February of this year, the panel said “only a UN tribunal can be effectively insulated from the stresses of Cambodian politics …that we believe would ultimately prove fatal to the viability of a Cambodian court.”
Since then, UN experts and Cambodian legal reform groups repeatedly have criticized a judicial system they say is too politicized to handle a trial of this magnitude.
Sok Sam Oeun, a local legal reformer who heads the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he is unsure of Chea Sophara’s motives.
Yet he suggested that the authorities are misguided if they think a sweep this soon before the Khmer Rouge trial will do much good.
“The government always says they want to try the Khmer Rouge in a Cambodian court—then why expose all this corruption now?” Sok Sam Oeun asked.
“By doing this now, they’re not leaving enough time to reform from bottom up. We need to get to the root of the problem. Now, we will only get rid of all the judges. And then how will we hold a trial?”