Human Rights Watch on Thursday decried Prime Minister Hun Sen’s repeated pronouncements on the number of suspects to be pursued by the Khmer Rouge tribunal and called for a swift resolution to a disagreement among the court’s prosecutors.
Noting that eight months have now elapsed since the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber took up a disagreement between the UN and Cambodian prosecutors over whether to open an investigation of a handful of additional suspects, the human rights organization said in a statement to the media that the outcome should be based on “evidence, not politics.”
Departing UN prosecutor Robert Petit in November sought the chamber’s arbitration after his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, opposed opening investigations into six additional suspects, one of whom has since died.
Sara Colm, Human Rights Watch senior researcher, said Thursday that the time spent waiting for the tribunal to decide the matter only heightened the appearance of government meddling.
“Eight months go by and we’re hearing strong statements from top government officials that there will be no more than five prosecutions,” she said. “That’s an incredible delay that has to feed into the perception that political interference is going on.”
Repeating similar public statements he has made over the past ten years, Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the prosecution of more than five Khmer Rouge leaders could cause a return to civil war, the government announced last week.
In announcing his departure last month, Mr Petit said government leaders should not presume to tell the courts what to do. Ms Leang has denied accusations of government interference but has expressed views broadly similar to the prime minister’s.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the government body which negotiated the tribunal’s establishment, said Thursday that Human Rights Watch had badly misread current events.
“It’s like we’re talking cats and they’re talking dogs,” he said, noting that he had not seen the statement. “It’s not political pressure, it’s a fact. The prime minister knows his country clearly.”
“Those people don’t care about the peace of Cambodia,” Siphan said. “Cambodia wants peace and justice.”
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith declined to speak to a reporter.
The five-judge Pre-Trial Chamber, which was initially created to resolve such disputes, has been widely criticized among participants to Khmer Rouge trials for the slow pace of its deliberations, which have taken an average of over eight months, according to lawyers for Ieng Sary.
International pretrial judges Katinka Lahuis and Rowan Downing were to arrive in Phnom Penh over the weekend. However the chamber informed court officials in the first week of this month that it would not be holding any hearings in July.
The embassies of the US, which funds anti-corruption and judicial reform development, and France, where the premier reportedly made his most recent remarks, both declined to comment on Thursday.