PHNOM PENH – Two recent high-profile Cambodian court rulings condemned by activists heighten fears the judiciary is ill-equipped to deliver a trial of ex-Khmer Rouge leaders free of political influence.
The UN-backed tribunal, which has been delayed for years due to negotiations over its set up, was given a green light to proceed with staffing in April but wrangling over funding continues and senior appointments are yet to be made.
Critics have long charged that Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt judiciary is also politically influenced and should not be handed the task of trying the surviving henchmen of tyrant Pol Pot, who seized power in 1975.
When his Khmer Rouge regime was ousted three years later, up to two million Cambodians were dead as a result of their ultra-Maoist policies, but no one has ever been punished for the crimes they perpetuated as Cambodia struggled to emerge from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998.
Under the agreement for the so-called Extraordinary Chambers (EC), mostly Cambodian but also foreign judges are expected to try at least six of the most culpable top members of the Khmer Rouge.
The EC’s decisions require a majority vote and must include at least one foreign vote, but human rights groups have argued this exposes the tribunal to stalemates as well as political influence via the appointment of the judges.
They say two recent cases to be tried by Cambodian courts argue their point.
On Tuesday, Cambodia’s military court found an opposition lawmaker guilty of attempting to form a rebel army plotting to overthrow the government and handed him a seven-year sentence, sparking uproar among human rights groups.
They complained about flimsy evidence, irregular court proceedings and alleged that the court was operating outside its jurisdiction by trying a civilian in the first place.
The United States also condemned the outcome, saying it "raises again questions about the competence and independence of Cambodia’s judiciary".
Last week, a similar outcry was provoked by the convictions and 20-year sentences handed to two men accused of the January 2004 murder of a prominent unionist. No eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence was shown to the court.
The men, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, are seen even by the victim’s family as being the scapegoats of a government under intense pressure to convict.
"In both cases the allegations were either fabricated or spurious," Steve Heder, Phnom Penh-based University of London legal scholar closely following tribunal preparations, told AFP.
"The problem here is the real criminals were those who conspired to misuse the law and the courts to suppress political and social dissent in violation of domestic Cambodian legislation and Cambodia’s international legal obligations.
"So obviously this bodes very badly for prospects that the Cambodian law and judiciary can be relied upon to do its part of the Khmer Rouge tribunal job properly. I agree with those who see things going from bad to worse."
Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights watchdog Licadho, said the blatant bias in both cases deepened her pessimism about the tribunal.
"How can we hope to get a credible, independent trial that can provide justice to the victims? This is my question," she told AFP.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also questioned the tribunal’s capacity.
"These two trials, within a week of each other, bode extremely badly for the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal, in which Cambodian judges will play a key role alongside foreign ones," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
"The current state of the judiciary simply does not justify any faith that Cambodian judges involved in the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be able to act professionally and independently of the government."
But the agreement thrashed out between the government and United Nations for the 56-million-dollar, three-year proceedings is unlikely to be wound back now, Heder said.
"It’s too late. The political and diplomatic deal is done. The donors don’t want the can of worms reopened," he said.
"There of course has been some human rights and diplomatic kerfuffle about the trials but the reality is they’ve got away with this."
One diplomat from a donor country told AFP the international judges would safeguard against any political influence on Cambodia’s judiciary.
"If we are trying to help reform their judiciary, then the inclusion of Cambodian judges and prosecutors is essential," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.