Returning on Thursday from talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on how to try Pol Pot’s former henchmen, top government officials vowed to proceed with a trial on their own terms.
Instead of assembling an international-style tribunal proposed by the UN, Minister of Cabinet Sok An said the government will seek advice from independent US and French legal experts to secure the legitimacy critics say Cambodian courts lack.
“We will continue to work on our own draft,” said Sok An, after he, Prime Minister Hun Sen and entourage arrived at Pochentong Airport.
“I promise to keep [the UN] informed on our progress.”
The government’s draft law would charge former Khmer Rouge leaders using international standards—including the 1948 Geneva Convention on Genocide—but it likely will not heed many suggestions made by the UN on how to conduct the trials, Sok An said.
While the government did not halt negotiations with the UN, Sok An reiterated the take-it-or-leave-it approach outlined in a memo Hun Sen presented Kofi Annan last week in New York.
It stated that the most UN involvement the government would accept is a minority of international judges appointed to serve in existing municipal courts; the least, no UN involvement at all.
After the government’s draft law is complete, it will be put through the proper national channels of passage, Sok An said. Once passed and signed by King Norodom Sihanouk, former Khmer Rouge leaders will face a court “as soon as possible.”
What remains to be seen, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy said, is just who would be tried by a government-dominated court.
“Only a show trial…is acceptable to [the government],” he said this week in a statement from abroad. Only a “few politically suitable scapegoats will be found guilty, not the Khmer Rouge leadership.”
Since “Brother No 2” Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and former head of state Khieu Samphan defected to the government, they have led quiet, undisturbed lives in the one-time rebel stronghold of Pailin. Only Ta Mok and Kang Kek Iev, better known as Duch, have been arrested and face genocide charges under the new law, once passed.
Because a number of government leaders also harbor a history in the Khmer Rouge movement, critics doubt the legal system could run a fair and credible trial. “Cambodian courts cannot handle this trial, and the government knows it,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
She suggested, however, the UN “has its own agenda,” making any process a political one.
Although he made a conciliatory speech on Monday before the UN General Assembly, Hun Sen in the past has shunned the UN for granting Khmer Rouge operatives a seat in the world body and allowing them to negotiate in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.
One Western lawyer who has worked in the Cambodian legal system since 1993 said the international community should not assume “UN equals legitimacy.”
Since Hun Sen and then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997 sent a letter to the UN seeking an international trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, Hun Sen has tempered his position, asking for UN assistance for a local trial.
“If this assistance means Cambodia can move ahead to improve its justice system, bring in international lawyers and incorporate international law, maybe there is room for a credible trial,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“But what extent of credibility is still the question,” he noted. “That Cambodia will decide to go alone without the UN does not mean it has a blank check. The world will still be watching closely.”