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A “toxic mistrust” at Cambodia’s dysfunctional genocide trial

Andrew Buncombe

s21 victims 300x180 A toxic mistrust at Cambodias dysfunctional genocide trialIt’s increasingly clear that the genocide tribunal in Cambodia – a court set up to investigate and prosecute senior members of the Khmer Rouge regime who were responsible for the deaths of unknown numbers of people – is in nothing less than a state of utter crisis. At the heart of the problem is the issue of how many former members of the murderous regime out to be brought before the court and how many should be allowed to quietly live out their lives.

Last month I reported that Andrew Cayley, a British lawyer who serves as one of two prosecutors at the tribunal, had requested the investigating judges extend their inquiries into the actions of several former Khmer Rouge officials. He did so after the judges announced their investigation into the individuals – a docket that is known as Case 003 – had been concluded, without the individuals themselves even being questioned.

Now there is more turmoil. Dr Stephen Heder, a former journalist and Cambodia expert who now lectures on south-east Asia at London’s SOAS and who served as an advisor to the court, has resigned his position. Four other staff, said to be full-time UN employees, are said to have also resigned over what is widely perceived to be a reluctance on behalf the judges to pursue Case 003. The academic has declined to comment on his decision to stand down but in his letter of resignation, which he made available to me, Dr Heder wrote that he was quitting because the judges had decided to close Case 003 “effectively without investigating it, which I, like others, believe was unreasonable”.

But he said more than that, adding that he and others had lost confidence in the leadership of the judges and that they had created a “toxic atmosphere of mutual distrust” in “what is now a professionally dysfunctional office”.

The $200m tribunal that took more than a decade to establish, has always struggled against a backdrop of interference and opposition from the Cambodian authorities. Five suspects, among them Comrade Duch, or Kaing Guek Eav, the head of the S-21 torture and interrogation centre in Phnom Penh who was convicted last summer, have been formally charged. According to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, that is where the matter should end. Last year, he told UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon that he wanted to see no more people brought to trial. He claimed it would be damaging to the nation to do so.

But other observers and members of the legal fraternity believe there is adequate evidence to bring cases against other former members of the Maoist-inspired regime. As far back as 2001, when he was at the American University in Washington DC, Dr Heder made a case for prosecuting Meas Muth, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge navy who is accused, among other things, with the kidnap and murder of several foreign tourists, and air force commander Sou Met. It is believed these two men are the defendants listed in Case 003, details of which have not been made public, that the judges so superficially investigated. Few think a case will now ever be brought against these individuals.

heder A toxic mistrust at Cambodias dysfunctional genocide trial

In that 2001 paper, Dr Heder, (left), wrote: “Documents pertaining to…Sou Met and Meas Muth provide compelling evidence of their direct involvement in the arrest and transfer to S-21 for execution of cadre from their Divisions. The evidence similarly suggests that both officials may be responsible for arrests and executions perpetrated by subordinates in their respective divisions.”

In a very odd move, the judges in the case, Germany’s Siegfried Blunk and Cambodia’s You Bunleng, released a statement saying they welcomed the departure of Mr Heder and their staff members since they had questioned the judges’ authority to decide on the case. “In view of questions by the media regarding recent attempts by certain OCIJ staff members who have obtained new jobs outside of OCIJ, to portray their departure as “resignation” in protest over the CIJs’ decision to close investigations in Case 003, the CIJs emphasize that they welcome the departure of all staff members who ignore the sole responsibility of the CIJs in this issue,” it read.

The Khmer Rouge, which controlled Cambodia from 1975-79, may have been responsible for the murder and deaths of up to 1.7m people. The country today, despite having a young population, remains traumatised by that dark period in its history. It’s remarkable that given the efforts that have been made to bring those responsible to justice, the opportunity is not being taken.

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  • http://twitter.com/Birchall_Jon Jonathan Birchall

    Great post.
     
    The Cambodian Daily on Monday published Dr Heder’s resignation note to Judge Siegfried Blunk, sent on May 5 (he forwarded it to CD in response the the statement by judges noted above):
     
    “In view of the judges’ decision to close the investigation into case file 003, effectively without investigating it, which I, like other, believe was unreasonable; in view of the UN staff’s evidently growing lack of confidence in your leadership, which I share; and in view of the toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust generated by your management of what is now a professionally dysfunctional office, I have concluded that no good use can or will be made of my consultancy services to the” co-investigating judges, Mr Heder wrote.
     
    “I therefore decided yesterday to discontinue these services with effect from today.”
     
    Jonathan Birchall Senior Officer, Communications and Publications 
    Open Society Justice Initiative
    400 West 59th Street
    New York, NY 10019
    Phone +1 212 547 6958 (o)
              +1 917 325 2565 (m)
    jbirchall@justiceinitiative.orgwww.justiceinitiative.org

  • LH_Mak

    Of course it’s dysfunctional; most Cambodians never wanted it. Until the U.S. war criminals, who did far more than the Khmer Rouge murderers to destroy Cambodian food sources, are brought to justice, these show trials will have no credibility or function – other than providing overpaid employment for foreign lawyers.

  • http://twitter.com/Birchall_Jon Jonathan Birchall

    Great post.
     
    The Cambodian Daily on Monday published Dr Heder’s resignation note to Judge Siegfried Blunk, sent on May 5 (he forwarded it to CD in response the the statement by judges noted above):
     
    “In view of the judges’ decision to close the investigation into case file 003, effectively without investigating it, which I, like other, believe was unreasonable; in view of the UN staff’s evidently growing lack of confidence in your leadership, which I share; and in view of the toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust generated by your management of what is now a professionally dysfunctional office, I have concluded that no good use can or will be made of my consultancy services to the” co-investigating judges, Mr Heder wrote.
     
    “I therefore decided yesterday to discontinue these services with effect from today.”
     
    Jonathan Birchall Senior Officer, Communications and Publications 
    Open Society Justice Initiative
    400 West 59th Street
    New York, NY 10019
    Phone +1 212 547 6958 (o)
              +1 917 325 2565 (m)
    jbirchall@justiceinitiative.orgwww.justiceinitiative.org


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