Hopes for Khmer Rouge tribunal influence on Cambodia’s courts ‘at risk’ amid political crackdown

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A packed public gallery watches closing statements in Case 002/02 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. ECCC

When the Khmer Rouge tribunal was first established it was seen not only as a chance at justice for the regime’s victims, but as a potential example for the country’s courts to emulate. It would, it was speculated, lift up the justice system – a hope that experts at a recent panel say has been all but extinguished.

At the discussion – hosted in New York, last month by the Open Society Foundations, and for which an audio recording was recently made available – experts discussed the impact an ongoing political crackdown may have on the legacy of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

“What’s the relationship between the deterioration of democracy and human rights and . . . the performance of this extraordinary chambers in the search for accountability?” Jim Goldston, the moderator and executive director of Open Society Justice Initiative, asked.

The tribunal was established to try the leaders of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to 2 million people.

So far, the court has convicted chief ideologue Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan and Kaing Guek Eav, who oversaw the S-21 prison, of crimes against humanity.

Putsata Reang, a Cambodian-American journalist, said the tribunal “came into existence really to do something that had not happened in Cambodia before, which was in fact to administer justice”.

She credited the court with bringing “standards for what justice means in Cambodia” following “an epidemic of mob rule”.

Heather Ryan, a consultant with Open Societies and a long-time court observer, said the tribunal “does serve as an example of a different level of justice than what Cambodians are used to seeing in the normal domestic courts”.

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A packed public gallery watches closing statements in Case 002/02 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. ECCC

That progress, however, is “now at risk”, said David Tolbert, with the International Centre for Transitional Justice.

In recent months and years, the courts have been widely viewed as a cudgel wielded against ruling party critics. The CNRP is currently facing dissolution at the hands of the Supreme Court and opposition leader Kem Sokha is awaiting trial on charges of “treason”.

Reang agreed that the court’s legacy – that justice is possible even when high-level leaders are involved – is hanging in the balance.

Noting the government’s violent crackdown on 2013 protests and the 2016 murder of political activist Kem Ley – which many suspect was a political assassination – Reang said Hun Sen is flaunting his own impunity.

“On the one hand, we could have former Khmer Rouge leaders who are partly responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians be brought to justice . . . while at the same time we have a prime minister who literally is getting away with murder,” she said.

The discussion then moved to the international community’s response to the crackdown, with Tolbert saying cutting funding for the ECCC should be on the table.

“I don’t think you can tolerate extrajudicial killings. I don’t think you can tolerate the closing down of newspapers for political means and the manipulation of elections,” he said.

Open Society’s Ryan, however, said cutting aid to the court would only serve Hun Sen’s purpose. The premier has said that cases beyond the scope of the leaders already prosecuted would not proceed.

“I worry that maybe Hun Sen would be somewhat vindicated and would in fact like it if the international community pulled out of the court,” Ryan said.