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National Courts Not Near Tribunal Standards: Experts

While the Khmer Rouge tribunal may serve as a model for Cambodia's national courts, experts say the country's judiciary has a long way to go before it reaches international standards.

The UN-backed tribunal recently wrapped up its first trial, sentencing prison chief Duch to a commuted 19 years in prison for his role in the torture and execution of more than 12,000 people.

The relatively short sentence left many victims disappointed, but Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the tribunal, said the completed trial, which 77 days of testimony and more than a year of deliberation, was valuable “to the whole world.”

The hybrid court puts responsibilities and decisions into the hands of an equal number of international and national judges, prosecutors and staff. It also includes the complaints and representation in court of those who feel they are directly victims of the defendant.

The tribunal is meant not only to try the senior-most responsible leaders of the regime, but to move the country toward national reconciliation. It was also meant to be a model for Cambodia's oft-maligned court system, which critics say is plagued by corruption and political bias.

“There are many good points we can take as examples,” Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said of the Duch case. “First, the way the verdict was written was different from the normal courts. It was done with transparency, with a clear legal basis.”

It also provided a venue for dissenting voices of judges in the minority.

“In the past we have never seen a different opinion in our court system,” Sok Sam Oeun said. “They tried to be unanimous and seem to be confidential.”

A week after the verdict was out, Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed the court's work and dismissed allegations of political influence. In fact, a group of senior ruling party members have refused to comply with summonses from the international investigating judge. And Hun Sen has repeatedly warned the courts not to indict more leaders of the regime.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia respects the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s decision because the court is independent,” Hun Sen said in public remarks. “We respect the independence of the court. The court sentenced Duch to 35 years in jail. It is up to the court, which the Royal Government of Cambodia must respect.”

While the tribunal may be a model for the national courts, Chiv Songhak, president of the Cambodian Bar Assocation, said a lack of resources is still a problem.

“Our national courts do not have enough money to arrange logistics and resources,” he said.

Other court observers say the government lacks the political will to reform the judiciary or overcome Cambodia's culture of impunity.

“Everything must be based on law,” said Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho. “No matter how rich or powerful you are.”