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An Interview With US War Crimes Ambassador Stephen Rapp

[Editor’s note: Khmer Rouge leaders are currently on trial for genocide by a UN-backed tribunal. The court is facing serious roadblocks, including the recent resignation of UN investigating judge Mark Harmon. His resignation, purportedly for personal reasons, coincides with Cambodia’s failure to arrest two key suspects in two cases before the court. VOA Khmer’s Sok Khemara recently sat down with US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp, to discuss what this all means for the beleaguered court.]

Ambassador Rapp, you’ve visited Cambodia many times in the past, and the United States has given a lot of funds to the UN-backed court, the tribunal. What is your latest observation and assessment for it?

Well, there are very positive things that have gone on in the court. I was just there last week to see the beginning of the hearing of the appeal, and Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of crimes against humanity and are now challenging that conviction before the Supreme Court chamber. And there is immense interest in Cambodia about that case, about the crimes alleged, for which they were convicted, which basically concerned the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime, the evacuation of the cities in April of 1975, and the killing of anyone that was associated with the government of Cambodia between 1970 and 1975. Those soldiers and ministers and others were executed on site.

But now we also have the Case 002/2 in trial, and going well, with testimony about the really massive crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the detention facilities in which tens of thousands of people were forced into false confessions and then killed [for example] with pipes to the back of the head. Other places, where people were worked to death, other situations where people were starved and mistreated, leading to the killing of almost 1.7 million people—one of the worst crimes of the 21st century—and a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Evidence is now coming forward on that in this second phase of the trial involving these two surviving leaders.

On the other hand, the investigation of several other suspects that has been blocked in the past is now proceeding, to some extent, but the question to whether that investigation will be allowed to be completed fully and judicial orders entered, remains a challenge for the court.

You seem to be satisfied with Case 002, but how about the cases 003 and 004? As you know international judge Mark Harmon resigned yesterday (July 7, 2015). What will happen to the process in the future?

Well Mark will be preceded by another Judge, almost certain to be the reserve judge, a German national Michael Bohlander, who has already been confirmed in his reserve position by the Cambodian government and the UN is now asking for him to be made full judge. I spoke to him last week, and he is ready to go, and Mark has agreed to stay on until the fall, in hope that there can be no break between him and Judge Bohlander. It’s been possible for Judge Harmon to make great progress in the investigations.

And understand Case 003 involves an individual, a surviving individual who was head of the navy, Meas Muth, is a case that involves some 10 crime sites. Case 004, which involves, at the moment, Im Chaem, who’s been named—and there are two others that are being investigated—and that involves some 55 crime sites and the necessity of substantial investigation. During the course of the last two years, Judge Harmon, with the cooperation of the Cambodian government, has been able to carry out extensive investigation.

The challenge arose late last year, when it was necessary for him to confront the accused with that evidence, and they refused to come in and respond. The government did not formally arrest them and bring them in. We’re not talking about detaining them, because in order to detain them there would have to be both Cambodian and international judges in agreement. But just bringing them in to be confronted was blocked, so eventually Judge Harmon proceeded in absentia, and had counsel appointed for them.

So the process is moving forward, but it’s been hobbled by their non-cooperation. There is, by the way, a third accused, who is cooperating through this process. But what’s required in this court, and of course it’s a balance between Cambodian and international judges, and there is a majority of Cambodian judges as was agreed, but it’s required that independent investigations take place and then decisions need to be made by all judges of the court.

So that means those people, those suspects, have a better chance to present evidence of testimonies to judges probably being innocent?

Well they should. Obviously this is a process, it’s a civil law concept, which is a different kind of legal system than we have in the United States. But the job of the investigative judges, Mr. Harmon is one, is to investigate for guilt and for innocence, and constantly seek evidence of innocence, and there is a particular point that the accused gets to come in and show evidence to try and prove that the charges or the allegations are false.

And that’s been hobbled at this point because of the government’s inability, and frankly unwillingness to make those arrests. And frankly, I urged the government to make those arrests. Our own Congress has passed legislation regarding our funding that requires us in the State Department to make a finding about cooperation, and at the moment, that absence of cooperation is going to require us to basically state the truth to our Congress, and that could effect our congress’ allowing us to continue to contribute.

Understand, we want the court to succeed. We want the court to provide a factual basis for what happened, for the truth to be established there, for the people who bear the greatest responsibility, the leaders of Democratic Kumpuchea and those most responsible, to be held to account based upon evidence, and, if the evidence is not there, for them to be acquitted. And we need this process to move forward and we think not only for the history of Cambodia, so people know what happened in their own country, but also to establish rules and precedence for the future of Cambodian legal processes, so people can have confidence in their own system. Because the people that are working in this court will go back to working in Cambodian courts. So the idea of an independent and fair process that’s based upon the law, based upon the facts, is also important, together with establishing the truth about the history of the Khmer Rouge.

You mentioned leaving a legacy for the court in the future. What is your last message for Cambodian victims in the United States and in Cambodia and elsewhere 40 years after the crimes took place?

First of all it’s that the American people and President Obama, and the administration, together with prior administrations of the Republican Party, strongly support justice for the Cambodian people. And that involves finding the whole truth about what happened in that period and holding responsible those individuals that led the commission of theses crimes. And we have seen from our dealings with people in Cambodia and from the Cambodians that come to the court, and so far its roughly 150,000 people who have physically come to the court to watch the proceeding of trials one and trial two. And the interest is very strong among young people who weren’t alive in the 1970s, because this crime, which one would have to go back, I don’t know how far back in history you would have to go to find a crime where a quarter of the population is killed in an effort to take the country back to Year Zero. But it’s so important to establish truth about that, and I see young people who are very excited to see that occurring, but we want it to be done in a fair process that will lay the foundation for a rule of law in Cambodia when it comes to other and less significant crimes, but crimes that nonetheless need to be fought in order to have a society where people can live freely and in security.