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CAMBODIA: Locus Standi For Victims at Khmer Rouge Trials?

Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Mar 25 2008 (IPS) - Since the start of this year, a team of local researchers has been travelling the Cambodian countryside trying to revive two-decade old petitions in the hope they will form crucial evidence at the international tribunal into the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

In the process they are also seeking to give a voice to those Cambodians whose lives were shattered when the Maoist guerrilla group took control of the country in 1975, and encouraging their participation in the Khmer Rouge tribunal currently underway in Phnom Penh.

In an international first, unlike similar tribunals, the internal rules of the tribunal allows victims to be parties to legal proceedings giving them in-principle rights that extend well beyond those afforded to victims in the International Criminal Court.

While many legal commentators and civil society groups in Cambodia are supportive of the inclusion of civil parties in the court’s proceedings, there are concerns it could bog down or even derail the tribunal, still in its pre-trail phase and already running significantly behind schedule.

One of many civil society groups working to publicise the tribunal and the rights of victims to participate is the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DCCM), an organisation dedicated to studying and documenting the Khmer Rouge’s three and a half year rule.

It is focusing its efforts on the so-called “Renakse Petitions”, a collection of stories signed or bearing the fingerprints of over a million victims of the Khmer Rouge, collected by officials from the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea government in the early eighties.

Part of a massive effort to discredit the Khmer Rouge and persuade the United Nations to deny the group recognition as the government of Cambodia, they were never sent and are now held in the DCCM archives.

Terith Chy, leader of the DCCM Victim Participation Project, calls the petitions “the closest thing to a truth commission on the Khmer Rouge that Cambodia has had”.

The project aims to track down as many of the signatories of these petitions as possible, confirm their stories, and encourage them to participate in the tribunal.

“We were in Kampot (southern Cambodia0 in January this year to find people who had signed the original petition. Some had moved, some had died, but we found many.”

“We quizzed these people about their stories and asked them are they true. People stuck to their stories a hundred percent. They say if you want me to write it down again I can do it. The memories are still there, they have not faded.”

Numerous civil society groups are involved in outreach activities relating to the tribunal, including running information workshops on how it functions, informing victims of their rights and helping those interested to draft complaints.

In doing so, they are tapping into what observers agree is a huge desire on the part of many Cambodians to be involved in the trial.

These activities received a boost last week when the tribunal reaffirmed the value of civil party participation in all phases of its activities.

A small number of civil parties, represented by lawyers, participated in the pre-trial hearing of one of five defendants currently being held for trial, Noun Chea, or ‘Brother No 2’ as he was known in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.

Dismissing Noun Chea’s appeal last Thursday, Pre-Trial Chamber President Prak Kimsan was quoted in the English language Cambodia Daily as saying “Civil Parties have active rights to participate, starting from the investigation phase.”

“The Pre-Trial Chamber notes that the inclusion of civil parties in procedures is in recognition of the stated pursuit of national reconciliation.”

The involvement of civil parties in the tribunal has been the subject of hot debate over the last few months.

Among the issues discussed by the prosecution, defence and civil society groups have been how to balance the rights of defendants and victims and to what degree the court should confine itself to questions of the guilt and innocence of the defendants, as opposed to pursuing the broader goal of national reconciliation.

Defence lawyers for the five accused Khmer Rouge leaders maintain that the participation of civil parties biases the court against their clients.

Civil society groups and prosecutors state that the victims are likely to know the most about the crimes being judged and their human toll, and that their participation will be a crucial step towards national healing.

But even those supporting last week’s decision are cautious.

“I am in favour of victims participating but it must be controlled or it will do more harm than good,” said Youk Chhang, DCCM Director and himself a Khmer Rouge survivor. “It must be clear for example what proportion of the court’s time will be taken up by victims otherwise you could have a thousand people in there all wanting to participate and express an opinion.”

The current process is that those interested have the right to file a complaint to the tribunal in which they can volunteer to be a witness, contribute information to the court or, most significantly, apply to be recognised as a civil party to the proceedings.

“To be a civil party to the proceedings you must prove that harm happened to you is a direct result of the commissioned crime that is the jurisdiction of the court,” said Gabriela Gonzales Rivas, deputy head of the tiny ‘Victims Unit’, administering the process.

“If so proven, this will give you the same rights as any one taking part in the proceedings. Victims have the right to choose legal representation, to participate actively in all stages of the proceedings, including asking questions through their lawyers, and access to all documentation.”

Five civil parties have so far been recognised. But the KRT Victims Unit which has only been open since January is currently processing upwards of 700 complaints, “the majority of them expressing an interest in being a witness or civil party,” said Rivas.

“These have come from people who have been made aware of their right to be involved in the process through outreach activities of NGOs. It is our aim to ensure that every complaint is analysed and responded to.”

The exact rules regulating civil party participation were not touched on in last week’s decision.

Rivas admits the current definitions are “pretty open” and the Victims Unit is currently preparing documentation that will clarify and tighten the definition of civil party, as well as issues such as their confidentiality and security.

Both prosecution and defence have offered suggestions on how to regulate victim participation to prevent the tribunal from being flooded with complaints.

In addition to being short staffed, the Victims Unit is operating within a tight budget, part of a larger financial shortfall facing the tribunal.

Tribunal officials are heading to New York this week for discussions with the United Nations and donors and a request for 114 million US dollars as additional funding. This is to cover significant increases in judicial staff, including a team of lawyers to represent victims.

Terith Chy, who was born after Khmer Rouge rule, said that regardless of whether or not the Tribunal uses the material, the DCCM Victim Participation Project has already fulfilled one important need.

“These stories are important to building a comprehensive national history of what happened. We tell everyone that we interview this, and tell them that just by talking to us they are playing a vital role in national reconciliation.”

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