Just three days before the trial of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders is set to begin, judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday nearly doubled the ranks of civil parties, allowing more than 1,700 additional victims to seek reparations in the case.
The decision vastly broadened the criteria by which the court recognizes victims, and it was hailed by victims and their lawyers yesterday as a major victory.
“It’s tremendously interesting, really a groundbreaking decision,” said Anne Heindel, a legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “It certainly gives victims a much stronger participatory right or interest in this trial.”
Of the roughly 4,000 victims who submitted applications, just 2,123 were accepted in September by co-investigating judges, who are responsible for admitting civil parties.
Nearly all of the rejected applicants appealed that decision, and the Pre-Trial Chamber yesterday ruled to admit 1,728 of them. A total of 3,850 people will now be allowed to participate in the coming trial and seek reparations against Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith, and head of state Khieu Samphan.
Yesterday’s decision also delivered a harsh rebuke to co-investigating judges, saying they disregarded victims’ rights by failing to provide them with timely information on their civil party status and reasoned explanations of their rejections.
It called the investigating judges far too restrictive in the standards used to assess the harm victims had suffered. Civil parties had been required to demonstrate a clear link to one of the specific crimes or crime scenes being investigated.
But the Pre-Trial Chamber ruled that victims who suffered in other locales must also be included, noting that the four leaders are accused of participating in a criminal conspiracy and creating murderous policies that affected the entire country. And it said the definition of harm itself needed to be broadened.
“The very nature of the societal and cultural context at the time when the alleged crimes occurred requires another and wider consideration of the matter of victimization,” the Pre-Trial Chamber wrote.
“It’s a slapdown of the judges,” Ms Heindel said. “The tone of it is amazing, right from the get-go. They fundamentally disagree with the entirety of the co-investigating judges’ approach to this.”
In light of what they called “the totality and significance of the errors,” pretrial judges reconsidered each appellant’s application, rejecting just 19 this time around.
Silke Studzinsky, a lawyer who represents several hundred clients in the case, called the decision “a great and wonderful result.”
“It shows how flawed the order was,” she said, referring to the September indictment in which judges ruled on the status of civil parties. “The right to a reasoned decision was not provided.”
But she remained concerned that the court had reduced by some 27 percent its 2011 budget for legal consultants in the Lead Civil Party Co-Lawyers Section, acting on the presumption that there would only be some 2,000 civil parties.
Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the court, said he was “not familiar with what considerations were the premises for this budget decision.”
Ms Heindel pointed out that yesterday’s decision could also have major implications for the tribunal’s cases 003 and 004, which are opposed by the government and are reportedly being buried in the investigation chamber. Investigating judges have repeatedly refused to release public information on the cases.
“This implies that the Pre-Trial Chamber would consider the failure to provide any information about Case 003 to victims to be a per se violation of their rights,” she said.
Chum Mey, president of the Ksem Ksan Association for victims, said he was “very very happy” there would be so many civil parties in the coming trial.
He and other survivors of the regime have planned a ceremony this morning at the Choeng Ek Genocidal Center to make offerings to the dead in advance of Monday’s hearings.
“I hope the offerings would be able to inform those spirits about the court’s action, because I believe that the spirits might be living around here and waiting for justice and watching the living victims and the court,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)