Monday, 30 March 2009

First Khmer Rouge Trial finally underway

The international media is full of news reports today announcing that the first Khmer Rouge trial is finally underway. After years of controversy and corruption scandals prosecutors at the ECCC have today started their case against Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch. As I have previously blogged here Duch ran the notorious Toul Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh where many thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed.

The opening of today's substantive proceedings has been welcomed by all, including the many critics of the ECCC. It is of course hard to be opposed to the prosecution of those alleged to have committed crime against humanity and war crimes. However, even as those welcomes come, the criticisms and general concern about the operation of the ECCC continue. Brittis Edman, Amnesty International's Cambodia researcher reflected this tension in the organisations press statement on the hearing: "The Cambodian people will finally see one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge leaders face trial. But many more need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes."

The decision of the ECCC to prosecute only five suspects has been widely criticised. Yet when Robert Petit, the international Co-Prosecutor wanted to send six additional names to the investigating judges for further examination his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, objected on the grounds that the stability of the country might be affected. No action has since been taken on those six names.

Whilst the Cambodian officials may claim that further prosecutions would not be beneficial to the country, a recent survey carried out by the Documentation Center of Cambodia found in fact that a small majority of Cambodians polled felt that the court should look at further suspects. Overall 56.8% were in favour, whilst amongst the younger people asked 67.5% supported further investigations.

In the meantime, the delays in progressing the other prosecutions clearly raises a concern that Comrade Duch may end up being the only trial the ECCC ever actually completes. The three defendants in the second case Noun Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirithis are all suffering from health problems and may never make it to court.

So the excitement being generated in the international media is for a trial where the defendant has already confessed his guilt and expressed his remorse for his actions. According to his lawyer Francois Roux "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims."

Ultimately what can be expected from this first test of the ECCC? Clearly Duch's evidence will provide a valuable public record of the operation of Toul Sleng, and many are hoping that his evidence will provide some answers to the questions concerning what the Khmer Rouge did to their compatriots and why. His evidence may also provide some powerful testimony in relation to the other defendants due to be prosecuted by the ECCC. Cambodians certainly are aware of the moment of history and powerful potential the trial offers, as many queued to attend the first day of hearings.
Links to some of the coverage:
AP, BBC, Guardian, Irish Times, Reuters

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Thursday, 22 January 2009

5 years on and Chea Vichea’s murder continues to highlight the lack of justice in Cambodia

On 22nd January 2004 the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) was assassinated in broad daylight whilst reading a newspaper at a busy street kiosk in Phnom Penh. Chea Vichea had been an outspoken critic of the government and was at the time the best known union activist in Cambodia’s large garment sector. Shortly before his death he had received death threats and had requested police protection which had been denied to him.

Following his murder two men were arrested. Borng Samnang initially admitted to the killing but later retracted his confession claiming it was made under duress; Sok Sam Oeun denied his involvement. Almost immediately doubts began to emerge that they were in any way involved; both had strong alibis, with many witnesses stating that they could not have been the killers. Despite concerns about the evidence, and flawed prosecution, both men were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Both the criminal investigation and the trial were condemned by the then Special Representative of the United Nations' Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, as lacking any credibility. International and local human rights organizations were united in highlighting the fact that the detention and trial of the two men were plagued with human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment. The police had failed to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation and deeply flawed court proceedings relied on unfounded and inadmissible evidence. Despite all this, and a growing campaign to free the men, the Appeal Court upheld the conviction on 6 April 2007, even after the prosecutor acknowledged that there was insufficient evidence. Indeed, the appeal hearing was criticised by the international community as being politically-motivated and failing to take into account new evidence.

The campaign against the men’s convictions continued both nationally and internationally and good news finally arrived for Borng Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun at the end of 2008 when, after 1799 days in prison they were released on bail by the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal has been ordered to reinvestigate the case. Cleary, a retrial of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun by the Appeal Court presents an opportunity for the Cambodian judiciary to show a clear commitment to international standards of fair legal proceedings and independence from the government. It will come at a time when International attention is focused on the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials. However, a just and fair decision by the Court of appeal in Chea Vichea case may do more for the Cambodian people’s confidence in the judiciary than the ECCC’s hearings into their painful and bloody history.

Five years after Chea Vichea’s murder the Court of Appeal has an opportunity to right one of the most serious miscarriages of justice perpetrated in Cambodia in recent years as well as to conduct an effective reinvestigation into the killing that could present evidence that will finally bring those really responsible for his death to justice. If they can do this, then ordinary people may start to have a little faith in their justice system. For the moment, most rights groups are happy to see the men free but remain cautious as whether the Court of Appeal can ultimately ‘do the right thing’ and show that the Supreme Court decision was not simply an anomaly made only after years of campaign and pressure.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Khmer Rouge trial date announced

The first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader is due to start 17th February 2009. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch is facing charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was in charge of the infamous Toul Sleng prison where detainees were tortured and killed and is the first of five detainees to be sent for trial.

It is reported by officials that Duch, who has been detained since 1999 and has previously admitted his guilt, has been cooperating with prosecutors and is willing to testify in court. The testimony may well reveal significant information about how the Khmer Rouge leadership made their decisions during their time in power.

For the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), this will be first real move towards prosecuting Khmer Rouge leadership. Whilst the trial may finally draw some attention away from corruption scandals and delays that have dogged the Court it is likely that the trial process will face further delays as the court takes it first steps towards its real work.

The hearing in February will simply examine the lists of witnesses and rule the important question of the extent to which “civil parties” can participate in the trial. The question of how far the victims of the Khmer Rouge will be able to have their voices heard in this and future trials is important and still to be fully resolved. In a decision in March last year the pre-trial chamber of the ECCC ruled that victims should be allowed to participate in court proceedings. However, in subsequent rulings the ECCC appeared to limit the right finding that civil parties could not speak in person in pre-trial appeals.

The ECCC has now launched a media campaign to encourage victims to participate in the upcoming proceedings. Thus civil parties have been given until the 2nd February to come forward. So far 28 people have been officially recognised as civil parties and 70 are being processed.

The trial of Duch is scheduled to begin in March. It is thought that the trials of the other four detainees will not start before 2010.

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