The international investigating judge at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal has charged a third suspect, raising again questions in two controversial cases at the court.
Judge Mark Harmon charged former Khmer Rouge cadre Ao An, better known as Ta An, with a raft of atrocity crimes associated with an execution site and two security centers, according to a tribunal statement issued Friday.
Critics say government interference has stopped full indictments and arrests of suspects in two cases—003 and 004—at the tribunal, despite charges being laid against them.
Ao An, who is part of Case 004, is charged with premeditated homicide and the crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds, imprisonment, and other inhumane acts at the Kok Pring execution site, Tuol Beng security center and Wat Au Trakuon security center.
Court observers say the tribunal has failed to bring in two other suspects already named by the judge—a problem for the UN-backed court’s independence and one that must be dealt with. Political interference from Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials has prevented the Cambodian side of the hybrid court, as well as the police, from acting, despite the announcement of charges against former Khmer Rouge cadre, observers say.
“The UN should have taken a stronger public position on political interference quite some time ago, as the government’s vocal obstruction of Cases 003 and 004 is nothing new,” John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of a book on the tribunal, said. “The court’s internal mechanisms are ill-equipped to resolve this type of challenge. The principal problem lies at the political level, and that is where it needs to be addressed.”
In a statement Monday, the Open Society Justice Initiative called on international staff at the tribunal to publicly acknowledge whether the Cambodian side is deliberately obstructing the work of the court, known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC.
“While this refusal to honor legitimate orders of the ECCC is troubling, the failure of the UN and the court’s international officials to address or even fully acknowledge such political interference is even more appalling,” OSJI said, a reference to Im Chaem and Meas Muth, two suspects who have been charged but not arrested.
Failure to disclose the facts surrounding the issue risks the integrity and reputation of the court, while demonstrating to Cambodian domestic courts a “caving” to political interference, OSJI said. It also shows that “the UN is not committed and able to uphold principles of judicial independence, [while] deepening Cambodians’ cynicism about the prospect of judicial or rule of law reform in their country.”
In a separate statement this week, Human Rights Watch said the UN should end its participation in the tribunal and donors should stop funding it if the Cambodian government fails to arrest the suspects.
Council Minister Sok An dismissed such charges as “an old song.” The government can’t pressure the courts, he said.
UN spokeswoman Eri Kaneko told VOA Khmer she welcomed statements from the Cambodian government for “the independent functioning of the ECCC, within the framework of the agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations establishing the ECCC.”
Citing a meeting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday between the UN’s special tribunal expert, David Scheffer, and Sok An, Kaneko said both officials “expressed their continuing full support for cooperation in the implementation of all provisions of the ECCC Law and the UN/Cambodia Agreement in order to discharge the judicial mandate and procedures of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.”
Such statements are unlikely to assuage increasingly sharp criticism of the tribunal, which has only successfully completed one trial, of former Tuol Sleng prison director Kaing Kek Iev, since 2006.
Peter Maguire, a law professor at American University and the author of a book on the Khmer Rouge, says the UN now has “no choice but to withdraw” from the process. The tribunal itself can’t resolve the issue, he said.
“Hun Sen has publicly and blatantly disrespected yet another generation of UN officials,” he said. “Although international law is one factor, an equally important factor is power. Does the UN have the power to compel the Cambodian government to arrest and try another series of defendants? Absolutely not. It is time for the ECCC circus to finish what is on their plate and leave town.”