The decision not to pursue a trial against former Khmer Rouge cadre Im Chaem last month has prompted fresh questions over government influence over the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
The co-investigating judges last week dropped the case against Chaem, determining that her case did not fall within the court’s jurisdiction as she was neither a senior leader of the regime nor one of the most responsible for its crimes.
Professor Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia”, said that it was clear that Chaem’s case was “never going to happen for the simple political reason that Prime Minister Hun sen opposed them.”
“The court deserves credit for their patient perseverance given the political headwinds they faced; the court certainly exceeded my expectations. Now it is time for them to go home,” he told VOA Khmer via email.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has repeatedly said he does not want to see further prosecutions of Khmer Rouge officials, which he said were costly and could lead to “civil war”.
In March 2015, Human Rights Watch accused Hun Sen of blocking prosecutions at the tribunal.
“Cambodian prosecutors and judges appointed to the ECCC have repeatedly refused to cooperate with prosecutions of additional suspects,” it said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment on the charge, while Keo Remy, head of the government’s human rights body, could not be reached.
Long Panhavuth, a court monitor with the Cambodia Justice Initiative, said he was waiting to review the definition of why Chaem was not considered one of those most responsible for the regime, as she was allegedly responsible for thousands of deaths.
“Justice doesn’t mean that the court issued the right verdict or the closing order. That is to make the public see the fairness of the whole investigation and also so the ordinary people are able to understand the meaning of the decision,” Panhavuth added.
“If not, the court is far away from the people,” he said.
Neth Pheaktra, tribunal spokesman, denied there was any pressure applied to the judges, saying their decision was “in line with the law and professionalism and was evidence-based.”
Chaem, who lives in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng near the Thailand border, was reportedly a district secretary for the regime. She was charged in March 2015 with crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment and persecution on political grounds.
Her daughter, Kaing Narin, said she was “happy” that proceedings against her mother had been dropped.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the decision would be hard to accept for Chaem’s victims.
“We know in advance some decisions will not meet the people’s satisfaction,” he said.
“This is a decision which is hard to accept,” he added.
Latt Ky, a court monitor with local rights group Adhoc, said the decision may mark the beginning of the end of the more than decade-old tribunal.
“I recognize the investigating judges’ work, but we regret that the [decision] was unfair to the victims,” he said.
Long Khet, executive director of Youth for Peace, an educational NGO, said the decision risked creating a “culture of irresponsibility”
“It affects the truth-seeking procedure, which is not comprehensive. And it can breed a culture of irresponsibility.”
In November last year, the court upheld life sentences for two former top Khmer Rouge leaders. Ninety-year-old Nuon Chea and 85-year-old Khieu Samphan were found guilty of crimes against humanity. In another trial, both are accused of genocide of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, forced marriage and rape.
Another Khmer Rouge cadre, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the chief of the notorious S21 prison in the capital Phnom Penh who oversaw 14,000 prisoners’ deaths, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Other key leaders have died and thus escaped justice. Pol Pot, known as Brother Number One, died in 1998. Ieng Sary, the former minister of foreign affairs and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the former minister of social affairs, died in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
On Monday, the trial chamber reduced the scope of the case against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, saying that there will be no further proceedings in case 002 with respect to some worksites and security centers.
“The Trial Chamber concluded that conducting a further trial in Case 002 would not be in the interests of a fair, meaningful and expeditious procedure and thus terminated the proceedings concerning the facts set out in the Closing Order in Case 002 which were not included in Case 002/01 or Case 002/02,” according to a court statement.
“In general, the court’s proceeding has contributed hugely to finding justice, the truth and remembrance of people about the past,” said court spokesman Pheaktra.
From 2006 to 2016, the tribunal cost about $291 million dollars, some $40 million of which was contributed by Cambodian government.
Chhang Youk said the court has played an important role in prompting public discussion, allowing people to file complaints and seek justice.
“Our wait [for justice] is long. But if we look at since the creation of the court and the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, there is no day that people forgot about the past and did not demand justice,” he said.