KR Trial Action Pledged on US Senator’s Visit

Passage of Draft Law Seen for December

After months of inaction, Cambodian government officials have agreed to kick-start the process of setting up a court to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, after a one-day visit by US Sena­tor John Kerry.

Kerry said Prime Minister Hun Sen and other government leaders have agreed to a timetable that would allow the draft trial law to be passed quickly from the National Assembly’s legislation commission to parliamentary debate.

“[The government] also as­sumes it will be possible to complete that debate as readily as possible…with the ability to pass the tribunal law sometime in Decem­ber,” Kerry said Monday.

Kerry was last in Cambodia in April when he helped broker a deadlocked agreement between the UN and the government on how to try leaders of the regime that left more than 1 million dead in the late 1970s.

But the draft law has since been stuck on the bureaucratic path to the National Assembly, and parliamentary debate has been put off for months, with only eight of the 40 articles discussed by the commission so far.

Sok An, chief of the Council of Ministers, said after Kerry’s meeting with Hun Sen that he would soon brief the legislative commission—a necessary step before the process can move forward.

But he would not say when he expected a trial to actually take place. “[The government] must prepare the structure before starting the process of the trial,” Sok An said.

Kerry suggested that successfully holding the long-awaited trial could result in more international assistance to Cambodia. The US cut bilateral, non-humanitarian aid to the country after fighting erupted in 1997 between troops loyal to Hun Sen and those of then co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

“This was a healthy discussion about the new world we’re living in and about Cambodia’s capacity to share in that, and about the importance of accountability…and the virtues that come from something like this tribunal,” Kerry said.

“I think [Cambodia’s] leaders see that and understand that.”

Despite Monday’s optimism, the Cambodian government has once already promised swift passage of the trial law—after Kerry’s April visit—but observers say the issue was held up and used by the country’s leaders as political leverage.

Cambodian officials have blamed recent flooding, as well as visiting diplomats and heads of state, as reasons for the delay.

US diplomatic officials earlier voiced concern about the pace of work on the draft law, but Kerry said he wasn’t in Phnom Penh to pressure the government to force a trial plan through the legislature.

When asked what assurances aside from the accelerated timetable government officials gave that work would quickly commence on the draft law, Kerry only hinted at a reshuffling in the legislative bureaucracy. “I think they’ve tasked some people in a way they haven’t been,” he said.

Both Kerry and government officials said Cambodia’s budget would take legislative priority over the debate on the Khmer Rouge draft law, but that work on the communal election laws would be pushed back until the trial law was completed.

While the US has taken the lead role in coaxing a trial agreement out of the government, others in the diplomatic community are watching the process with interest. Kerry’s visit, they say, should help remove any remaining obstacles to the law’s passage.

“I expect and hope that at the end of this month or the beginning of next month, deliberations will resume,” said Eiji Yamamoto, counselor at the Japanese Embassy.

Japan remains one of Cambodia’s biggest donors and recently was the lead sponsor of a resolution in the UN calling for a speedy Khmer Rouge trial.

“The environment is getting better,” Yamamoto said. “With the resolution and Kerry’s visit, we are sending a clear signal that I hope the [Cambodian] government will understand.”

Hun Sen said he hopes the draft law will survive parliamentary debate intact but has repeatedly said he has no control over lawmakers who could opt to make changes, despite UN threats to pull out of the process entirely if the law is drastically altered.

Political observers say Hun Sen and Sok An may have a hard time selling the plan to other more hard-line CPP members who they say feel the draft law allows too much of a foreign presence.

(Additional reporting by Ana Nov and Lor Chandara)

 

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