Khmer Rouge tribunal judges unanimously approved a crucial set of procedural rules Tuesday, paving the way for judicial work to begin in earnest after seven months of controversy and delay.
Court officials announced the hard-won accord Wednesday morning at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, and work at the court began immediately, with a swearing-in ceremony for 20 court investigators in the newly minted pre-trial chamber.
In a joint statement read first in Khmer by Supreme Court Chamber Judge Kong Srim, then by co-Prosecutor Robert Petit in English, and finally by co-Investigating Judge Marcel Lemonde in French, judges emphasized the complexity of the task they had faced.
“Over the past 11 months of discussions, judges from different countries with differing legal systems, including from common law systems, have found mutually acceptable solutions whilst ensuring fair trial,” the statement said.
“Now that the rules have been adopted we can move forward,” it added.
Court officials were wary of committing to a firm time frame for when aging Khmer Rouge leaders will finally face their day in court.
Co-Prosecutor Petit said he expected to forward cases to the co-investigating judges within a few weeks. Some information about the identity of the suspects will likely be made public at that point, he said.
Speaking to reporters in English at the Council of Ministers Wednesday evening, Cabinet Minister Sok An offered his “sincere congratulations” and support.
“I reaffirm the full support of the Royal Government of Cambodia for the momentous task the ECCC is undertaking,” Sok An said, adding that victims can be assured their suffering has not “passed unnoticed into the mists of the past.”
Sok An applauded the court for completing its work on the rules in less time than it has taken other courts and urged Cambodian journalists to report on the tribunal honestly and objectively.
“In striving to achieve this long-awaited justice, we must not jeopardize our country’s newly won national peace, unity, and stability,” he added.
The passage of the internal rules creates additional expenses for the court, whose $56.3-million budget covers just three years of operation. No international criminal court has ever completed its work on time.
Lemonde said in an e-mail that the administrative budget of a newly created victims unit, which will help groups of victims sign on as civil parties to the court and handle complaints, is expected to run $600,000 for three years, but no funds have yet been allocated.
Some NGOs and foreign lawyers have already expressed interest in representing victims pro bono, he added.
Sok An told reporters that he was well aware of the funding gap.
“The existing budget will not cover all the aspects of the functioning of the ECCC, so I hope that the donors to the ECCC will not remain indifferent,” he said.
Until the victims unit is up and running, Petit advised victims wishing to participate to contact an NGO compiling complaints or come directly to the office of the co-prosecutors at the court.
Hisham Mousar, who has been following the tribunal for local rights group Adhoc, said that Adhoc plans to canvas the country in July to collect victim complaints for the court.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said DC-Cam has been investigating scores of historical complaints and advising victims on how to interface with the court.
The tribunal’s new rules allow for collective, non-financial reparations for victims, the details of which have yet to be determined, Lemonde said.
The rules also limit the power of the pre-trial chamber to block prosecution.
If co-prosecutors or co-investigating judges disagree on whether to proceed with a case, the disagreement goes to the pre-trial chamber, where at least one international judge must agree with the decision to halt prosecution, Lemonde said. Otherwise, the case proceeds.
Co-Investigating Judge You Bun Leng said that prosecutors can ask the investigating judges to detain defendants, opening the possibility that the first suspects might find themselves behind bars later this year.
Ensuring defendants the right to a fair trial, which many inside and outside the court have called a non-negotiable principal of international justice, proved to be one of the thorniest issues to resolve during the rules negotiations.
“From a defense perspective, the rules include all fundamental rights the accused need to insure a fair trial,” ECCC Deputy Defender Richard Rogers said at the press conference.
He highlighted the right of defendants to select a team of international and Cambodian lawyers, the right to remain silent, the presumption of innocence, and the right to a trial within a reasonable timeframe.
Rogers added that some rules are not as “progressive” as the protections offered defendants at other tribunals, which could become an issue at trial. Speaking after the press conference, he declined to elaborate, on the grounds that it might alert the prosecution to the defense’s strategy.
A final copy of the rules is expected to be released to the public in about 10 days, said the tribunal’s UN public affairs officer Peter Foster.
Japan, the largest donor to the tribunal and an important broker of the deal to lower fees for foreign lawyers at the court, said in a statement that the trials will “provide a good model for strengthening Cambodia’s judicial system.”
“Japan strongly hopes that the trials will proceed promptly and fairly,” Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added in its statement.
US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli called the passage of the rules a “solid step forward.”
“We continue to believe there will be other problems and that like this one, with a little good will, they will all be resolved and we will fitfully move forward to a real trial,” he said.
Center for Social Development Director Theary Seng welcomed the passage of the rules, but cautioned that many issues remain unresolved.
The passage of the rules, she said, “doesn’t resolve the issues of transparency, the charges of corruption, and the charges of political interference at the court.”
In response to concerns over hiring practices raised late last year, the UN Development Program commissioned an audit of the Cambodian human resources section of the court, the results of which have not been released.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)