Category Archives: Cambodia

Updates on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

There’s an article in Asia Times about the current situation of the Khmer Rouge Tribunals. Of particular interest is this description of the KRT’s next steps:

Because the suspects will strongly contest the proceedings and the documentary evidence linking them to atrocities committed by low-level cadres is fragmented, their prosecution is expected to be significantly more difficult than that of Duch, who essentially pleaded guilty after leaving a voluminous paper trail from his time as a prison administrator. 

“Case 002 is the most political, the most important, and the most difficult,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which helped to compile much of the evidence used by the court. Chhang called the second case “a test of trust between the UN and the government in seeking justice for the Cambodian survivors”. 


It’d definitely worth reading in its entirety.

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Sam gets 10

Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s primary opposition leader, received a sentence of 10 years imprisonment for “altering public documents and disinformation.” Rainsy had protested against Hun Sen’s decision to demarcate its border with Vietnam. He alleged that Phnom Penh had ceded territory to its northern neighbor, and even encouraged a village to uproot border markings. While this is obviously a sensitive issue for the regime, 10 years does seem like quite a long time for what is basically sedition. Of course, the Hun Sen regime claims the courts are independent and merely applying the law. But it also appears that, with China’s investment and aid, Hun Sen no longer feels compelled to moderate his authoritarian instincts.

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One guilty, how many to go?

As anybody following Southeast Asia has probably heard, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has sentenced Duch to 30 years imprisonment (reduced by 11 years for time already served) for his role in the Khmer Rouge genocide. This is significant less because of the result (Duch essentially confessed his guilt), but rather for the fact that it was actually reached. After all, 30 years is not a particularly heavy sentence for genocide, but it reflects the first time a KR leader has been sentenced by a court with some semblance of legal legitimacy.


In a recent East-West Center Asia-Pacific Bulletin (published before the Duch verdict), Kheang Un and Judy Ledgerwood discussed the KRT and some of its implications for Cambodia. On the public awareness front, the KRT seems to have had some success. According to a 2009 DC-Cam survey, 92.7% of interviewees strongly supported the tribunal, up from 69% an IRI survey the previous year. The author’s credit television programs such as the British-sponsored Duch on Trial and other outreach.

However, Duch’s case was the low-hanging fruit of the KRT process. Despite a last-minute plea for mercy, he essentially cooperated with the court and confessed his crimes (and the trial was still very expensive). The KRT has a mandate to try at least four more other KR leaders, none of whom has taken Duch’s conciliatory approach. As such, it’s unclear how successful the KRT will be in future cases.

Kheang Un and Judy Ledgerwood are much more pessimistic about Cambodia’s own judicial system. The courts are understaffed and underfunded. Judges often face resistance from the police in executing warrants and arrest orders. While some advocates of the KRT hoped the presence of an international justice system might spur reforms (or at least a healthy envy), this seems unlikely. As the authors note, no matter how much they might respect or prefer the international standards of the KRT, Cambodian judges must respond to domestic political pressures. Unless the CPP government’s attitude towards the judiciary and judicial reform changes, the KRT will likely be a footnote to Cambodian judicial history, not a spur for reform.

Here’s a useful website by the Phnom Penh Post for more background on the KRT and Duch trial.

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Courts and the Cambodian Coup

Here’s an interesting use of American judicial authority: a U.S. court sentenced a Cambodian man to jail for life for plotting a coup against a dictator. Chhun Yasith, an accountant, founded the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, which attacked several Cambodian government buildings on November 24, 2000. Several people were killed and over 100 were jailed. According to his lawyer, Chhun saw Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as an evil on par with Pol Pot.

I imagine Hun Sen is thankful to America judicial practices for sentencing this political opponent for him. But I also doubt that the experience will inspire Hun Sen to consider reforming Cambodia’s notorious judicial system. Just a few weeks ago, the Cambodian Supreme Court upheld another defamation suit against Mu Sochua, an opposition MP. According to BBC, her lawyer quit the case and joined Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party when Cambodia’s Bar Council accused him of malpractice. But that’s another story…

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"We lost our voice…"

Earlier this week, I highlighted the conflicts between national and international prosecutors in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) and suggested that there was a real risk the Cambodian public would become disillusioned with the KRT. Unfortunately, that fear is on its way to becoming a reality.

Upon its creation, KRT adapted an innovative procedure designed to allow the victims of the Khmer Rouge to testify at trial. It was hoped that participation of these so-called civil parties would give the victims a sense of closure. This had never been attempted before in any other international criminal tribunal. And after the results at the KRT, it might never be attempted again.
Cambodians report being extremely disillusioned with the civil-party process. Many felt that the judges, prosecutors, and defense ignored their testimony. As the Duch trial went on, opportunities for civil parties to testify diminished. Further hampering the process was the fact that each civil party is represented by their own lawyers, rather than collectively. Some of these lawyers have behaved less than professionally – one even visibly rolled his eyes and yawned during another attorney’s closing argument.

The problems are highlighted by a recent profile on Chum Mey, one of the three living survivors of Duch’s notorious S-21 internment center. Chum Mey testified as a civil party against Duch. However, he felt that the judges cut off his testimony, but allowed Duch unlimited time to respond to his allegations. “So at that point,” he reports, “I felt like I did not have any rights to express my concerns, but Duch had the right to express himself.” What a cruel humiliation to impose upon a human rights victim – rather than redressing the crime, the process reinforced the power imbalance between Duch and Chum Mey. At the end, Chum Mey claims the civil parties “lost our voice… and there is no real justice for us.” As the BBC puts it:

The experience left some feeling that they’d been guinea pigs in a judicial experiment – and a number boycotted the court.

There is a silver lining in all of these grey skies – namely, that we will probably never need any ad hoc international criminal tribunals ever again. Why not? Currently, we have the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and, of course, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, as well as a few others. The covers most of the major late-20th-century crimes against humanity. For any crimes committed after 2002, we now have the International Criminal Court.* Thus, the international community will not have to debate for decades over the structure and composition of international tribunals after each and ever violation. In theory, this will also deter future would-be Milosovices and Pol Pots.

* Well, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, the ICC only has jurisdiction over countries that are parties to the Rome Statute – and, not surprisingly, the United States is not a party. Second, only certain crimes are delineated, and some, such as the crime of “aggression” in war, remain vague.

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