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Some Remain Skeptical of Tribunal Corruption

Amid heavy allegations of corruption that are risking further funding for the joint UN-Cambodia Khmer Rouge tribunal, officials have now established a mechanism to tackle future charges. But in the eyes of some US observers, this procedure remains ambiguous and inadequate.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have struggled under allegations that staff paid kickbacks to work at the tribunal, as well as mismanagement, in what worried observers claim could jeopardize justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

It took two meetings between the UN’s assistant secretary-general for legal affairs, Peter Taksoe-Jensen, and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who is in charge of the tribunal, to establish two parallel complaints procedures—one international, one local—for handling further allegations. The UN and Cambodia will meet again before March 23 to finalize the agreement, officials said.

However, John Hall, an associate professor at Chapman University of Law, in Orange, Calif., said he was not encouraged by the new mechanism.

“The choice before the tribunal is quite clear: to proceed with the trials without adequately addressing the allegations of corruption and political influence risks tainting the entire process and casting a shadow over the trials,” he told VOA Khmer in a telephone interview. “The people of Cambodia deserve more; they deserve a court operating to international standards.”

Hall said it was “hard to say” say whether the new procedures would help the tribunal gain credibility.

“This may be the best that the UN is able to negotiate with the Cambodian government at this point, and donors will have to decide whether this new mechanism, however flawed, is adequate enough to justify greater funding,” Hall said. “I think the donors are eager for the tribunal to proceed, so will be looking for a justification to fund the trials. Should they, without a better complaints mechanism? Probably not.”

Although Cambodian officials at the Extraordinary Chambers have denied corruption exists and say the Cambodian side will not fall short on funding, donors have proven hesitant to forward money for a process perceived as flawed.

Hall made four suggestions for improving the tribunal’s credibility.

“First, limit opportunities for political interference in judicial decision-making, specifically, be open to the possibility of investigating additional suspects, not limit the number to the five defendants already named,” he said. “Second, create an independent investigation mechanism for accusations of wrongdoing. Third, ensure that human rights monitors, NGOs and reporters will be allowed to keep their whistleblower sources confidential. And fourth, ensure adequate whistleblower protections for those reporting wrongdoing.”

Only five aging leaders of the regime are so far in custody—Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Kaing Kev Iev—30 years after the fall of the regime.

Peter Maguire, author of "Facing Death in Cambodia," who has taught law and the theory of war, told VOA Khmer by telephone that the courts are operating under a shadow of doubt, thanks to a lack of transparency and basic budgetary accountability.

Meanwhile, continued delays could lead to the deaths of regime leaders before they go through trial, much like Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-Serbian leader who died in detention of a war crimes tribunal in 2006.

“If this court doesn’t move with a bit more urgency, they run the risk of becoming the Milosevic case No. 2,” Maguire said. “What good is procedural perfection if the defendants don’t live to see their trials? Perhaps that’s [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s objective. Only time will tell.”

Mounting costs are hampering the credibility of the courts, along with unanswered questions over corruption, he said.

“Those in charge of the Khmer Rouge tribunal have already blown giant holes in their budget, yet expect the international community to keep writing checks,” Maguire said. “Releasing the UN’s report on corruption would be a good start [to gaining credibility], but it is already too late. Corruption, nepotism and graft are common in Cambodia. Why should the Khmer Rouge tribunal be any different?”

Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath declined to comment on the corruption issue, referring questions to Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, headed by Sok An.

“There have been four or five times for national and international inspection, but no evidence of corruption found,” Phay Siphan said. He also said the new procedures agreed on late last month will not impact the process of the courts, and he denied political interference in court proceedings.

The senior UN legal affairs official, Taksoe-Jensen, speaking by phone from New York following negotiations in Cambodia over corruption reporting, said there had been some misconception and criticism over the new mechanism, but he said the goal was to address corruption and keep the process moving forward.

The “bottom line,” he told VOA Khmer, was “to create a mechanism whereby all the members of the staff can put forward the complaint about corruption” without fear of retaliation from the court. “It’s up to the donors to decide when the situation has been established whereby funds can be sent to the court again.”