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RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Tainted Jurists on War Crimes Tribunal

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK , May 13 2006 (IPS) - Chandra Nihal Jayasinghe chooses his words carefully to match the difficult task before him. He has just been named as one of the international jurists to preside over the special tribunal in Cambodia to try the surviving members of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

”This is actually a new dimension in the judicial endeavours that I have been engaged in,” Jayasinghe, 62, a Sri Lankan supreme court justice, said to IPS in a telephone interview from his home in a Colombo suburb.

The confirmation of his name by Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, this week, along with the list of other international and Cambodian judges, marked another milestone in the long and tortuous journey to establish this war crimes tribunal.

Jayasinghe, in fact, is the only jurist from a developing country nominated by the United Nations in its list of 13 international judges and prosecutors to play a role in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as this special tribunal is officially called. The others are from New Zealand, France, Austria, Japan, Poland, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.

But the announcement of the judges’ names has only added to the many controversies that already dog the ECCC, starting with the generally hostile attitude displayed towards it by the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Both local and international human rights groups have fired broadsides at Phnom Penh’s choice of Cambodian judges, named this week, to participate in this unprecedented legal exercise. Particularly troubling to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights watchdog, is Ney Thol’s name among the 17 Cambodian jurists.

Ney Thol, who is an army general and president of Cambodia’s military court, ”has a bad record on human rights,” Sunai Phasuk, HRW’s researcher in Thailand, told IPS. ”In one recent case, he denied the right of the defence to call his own witnesses and to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.”

Hun Sen’s reaction to such criticism has been predictable. On Thursday, in a speech delivered to a gathering of law students, he attacked those who questioned Cambodia’s choice of the local judges for the ECCC. The prime minister ‘’likened his critics to perverted sex-crazed animals, among other things”, states the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, a regional rights lobby.

‘’This tribunal is very important for the Cambodian people who suffered so much during the Khmer Rouge period,” Ny Chakrya, a ranking member of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, a Phnom Penh- based non-governmental group, told IPS. ‘’They want to see a fair and transparent tribunal.”

And Ny Chakrya is hoping that such will be the case when the next and the most important step of this tribunal, the work of the investigating judges begins.

The current developments come after a 10-year-long bitter debate between the U.N. and Hun Sen’s regime about the setting up of this tribunal, which is a unique body unlike the special tribunals established to try the accused for the crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The Cambodian tribunal will have a mix of international and local judges, with the latter in the majority, unlike the tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, which had only international jurists to ensure high standards of justice.

This war crimes court, being set up in a complex that has over 100 offices on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, will have three chambers: the pre-trial chamber, the trial chamber and the supreme court chamber. In addition, there will be a team of investigating judges and prosecutors.

‘’We are expecting the judges to come to Cambodia for a meeting in late June,” Helen Jarvis, chief of public affairs at the ECCC, said during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. ‘’Then the co-prosecutors will begin their preliminary examinations to issue preliminary indictments.”

Thereafter, the investigating judges begin work to examine the evidence for the cases ahead, she added. ‘’We are hoping that the trials will begin in early 2007.”

And while the trial will help Cambodian victims of Khmer Rouge brutality to finally get justice, its is also expected to revive political history embarrassing to the U.N., the U.S. China and the regional grouping Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines were leading members at that time. Some of them helped the rise to power of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, while others propped him up after his regime was driven out of power by the Vietnamese army.

During the reign of terror by the Maoist Khmer Rouge from 1975-79, close to 1.7 million people were executed or died of forced labour and famines in Cambodia. This South-east Asian country, one of the region’s poorest, currently has a population of 11.5 million people.

Pol Pot died in 1998 but other leaders involved in acts of genocide have survived. They include Ta Mok, the one-legged military chief who is known as ‘’The Butcher’, and Kaing Khek Lev, or ‘Duch’, who headed the grisly Toul Sleng interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, where 14,000 people accused of being ‘’enemies of the state” died and only 12 inmates survived. Both men are in jail after being accused by a military court, of war crimes and genocide.

Others like Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s deputy, known as ”Brother Number Two”, Khieu Samphan, former head of state during the Khmer Rouge years, and Leng Sary, the former foreign minister, are enjoying a free life following an amnesty from Hun Sen.

The Prime Minister, himself, carries the taint of that brutal regime. He was a member of the Khmer Rouge till he defected to join forces with Vietnamese troops that drove Pol Pot out of power in 1979.

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