Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday told visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the Khmer Rouge tribunal would cease its current investigations and confine the number of its accused to five, reigniting fears of government interference in the court.
According to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who briefed reporters outside the prime ministers’ office, Mr Hun Sen also said he would close the local UN human rights office unless its country representative is removed, striking perhaps the most serious blow in the government’s acrimonious relations with the human rights office.
Mr Namhong said the prime minister complained to Mr Ban that the local head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christophe Peschoux, who has suffered frequent rebukes from the government, had taken sides against Cambodian authorities.
Mr Namhong, the foreign minister, said the premier told Mr Ban that the tribunal’s second case, expected to go to trial next year, would be its last and that cases 003 and 004, in which five individuals are suspected of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, would never be tried.
“Concerning the Khmer Rouge tribunal, [Mr Hun Sen] stated clearly that there would be no case three,” he said. “We have to think about Cambodia’s peace…. Successful convictions will finish with case two.”
“Concerning the human rights office in Phnom Penh, [Mr Hun Sen] asked for the removal of Mr Peschoux since Mr Peschoux is not the one who works on human rights issues with the government but is the spokesman for the opposition party,” he said. “Remove Mr Peschoux or the UN human rights office in Cambodia will close.”
Mr Ban visited the tribunal’s offices yesterday afternoon for a closed-door meeting with the hybrid court’s UN and government staff.
According to transcript of his speech, the secretary-general said his meeting with the prime minister that morning touched on the court’s independence.
“We discussed the need for this court to receive the full cooperation of the government. There should be complete respect for its judicial independence,” he said.
International Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley described Mr Ban’s visit as “very positive” but declined to elaborate.
Jasper Pauw, however, a member of the defense team for communist party Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea, said Mr Ban was vague in his comments and evasive in answering staff questions, even when asked directly about executive interference and Mr Hun Sen’s comments yesterday morning.
“No real answers were provided, and basically the secretary-general repeated that the court should be independent…but he didn’t promise any specific measures or tell us what exactly he might be doing to combat executive interference, and he didn’t deny that it was happening,” he said. “He kind of dodged the bullet.”
To the disbelief of most observers, Mr Hun Sen has for more than a decade warned that prosecuting more than five suspects would lead the country back to civil war.
Two of the court’s international judges in September said there was reason to believe that remarks by government officials about the tribunal amounted contempt of court and could make fair trials less likely.
Mr Pauw said the prime minister’s remarks yesterday morning could only inflame fears of political interference and that his own defense team would consider asking the court once again to investigate such claims.
Local UN staff referred all questions about Mr Ban’s visit to the secretary-general’s staff who were not immediately available.
Questions sent to OHCHR headquarters in Geneva also went unanswered.
As a UN human rights worker in the 1990s, Mr Peschoux investigated political killings in 1997 and is recognized for his authoritative knowledge of Cambodia. He declined to comment yesterday and said any response would have to come from the secretary-general’s office.
The demand for Mr Peschoux’s removal repeated demands the government made privately to the UN earlier this year and appeared to go one step further than recent warnings to foreign envoys.
In March, the Foreign Ministry threatened to expel UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Broderick after the UN Country Team called for longer deliberations in the National Assembly’s speedy review of the draft anticorruption law. In an apparent reference to US Ambassador Carol Rodley, who had made public statements about corruption and logging, the ministry in April angrily warned all ambassadors to be mindful of their own behavior.
Human Rights Watch yesterday called the premier’s threat to close the UN’s human rights office a power grab.
“Getting rid of OHCHR appears to be part of Hun Sen’s master plan to ensure total impunity for himself and consolidate authoritarian power,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the group’s Asia division, wrote in an e-mail. “If OHCHR is pushed out, I expect it will only be a matter of time before Hun Sen uses threats and laws to go after and ultimately silence the remaining vocal NGOs, human rights defenders, and independent trade unionists who continue to assert their rights and call for justice.
“[Mr Ban] should stand up to Hun Sen and tell him that it is the UN that makes personnel decisions, not the Cambodian government,” Mr Robertson said.
Mr Ban is scheduled to visit the S-21 prison-home of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital this morning before departing for Vietnam.
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace)