Seated in his darkened office on the Tuol Sleng military prison compound, chief military court prosecutor General Sao Sok makes no apologies.
Head of a court under frequent criticism from human rights groups for arbitrarily prosecuting the ruling party’s political enemies, he passed a recent morning alternately pointing the harsh light of a desk lamp at his and his interviewer’s faces.
Sao Sok, installed at the court’s helm in 1981, is the man who in a suspect’s first 48 hours of detention interrogates them and determines whether they will stay in the military court system or be transferred to a civilian court.
On paper, the law is very clear about who should stay: a member of the military who breaks military rules or destroys military property, according to Untac law and the Law on Organization and Activities of Courts. But Sao Sok has a broader interpretation.
“We arrest people and prosecute them when they do wrong against the government,” he said in an interview last week.
In the case of two opposition party leaders arrested for allegedly attempting to assassinate the prime minister, for instance, Sao Sok says that even though they are civilians, they should remain in military court.
“The equipment they used was military equipment,” he says of last year’s rocket attack on a Siem Reap motorcade. “If they were civilians, they would not have access to equipment like that.”
Similarly, when Ta Mok was arrested earlier this year, Sao Sok was one of the first to interview the notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge movement—and to quickly determine that Ta Mok stay in military court.
“These actions—genocide, killing people—he carried them out as a soldier. No, not a soldier in the government. But as a Khmer Rouge soldier. Therefore, the crime is military. We cannot separate it.”
He said the same logic applies to Kaing Khek Iev, another former Khmer Rouge leader known as Duch also being held in military prison.
Moreover, Sao Sok hints that at least some of the prison’s nine other detainees could be “civilians who illegally recruited people into their own armies.”
Legal and human rights groups, however, continually assert that the military court’s logic is applied without any respect for existing statutes.
“Their interpretation of the law is just wrong,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. “The law is very clear. Their application of it is not.”
In September, London-based Amnesty International criticized the court, charging that “political priorities rather than Cambodian law are influencing the choice of court to which particular cases are assigned.”
And in his final speech as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special human rights representative to Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg told the National Assembly in October civilians are being wrongly held in military court.
Ever conscious of the military trials of Funcinpec party leaders ousted from the country during fighting with the ruling CPP, critics argue that the court is run by CPP loyalists who wouldn’t dare question the existing system.
Sao Sok, who served as a commune chief in 1979 and an army commander in 1980 before he was appointed to the court in 1981 during the Vietnamese occupation, admits his legal experience is limited. But he says he’s attending law school at night to improve his understanding of Cambodia’s legal system.
He also reminds his critics that at this prison, which also serves as a military base for more than 100 soldiers, high-profile suspects are likely more safe than they would be anywhere else.
Sao Sok’s assistant, General Kim Hourn, says Ta Mok’s food is prepared separately to protect him from poisoning, and Duch has the only air-conditioned room in the compound.
Regardless of the court’s fledgling efforts to open up, however, Sok Sam Oeun warned that any real reform will take a much more concerted commitment.
“You have to remember that anyone who lives a long time in an authoritarian regime is good at one thing—following orders.”