The legal team for a high-ranking former Khmer Rouge leader facing genocide charges has brought a lawsuit against Cambodia’s prime minister and several other government officials for interfering in the progress of a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal.
The suit, filed Monday at Phnom Penh Municipal Court by the lawyers representing Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s former second-in-command Nuon Chea, accused the government of obstructing justice sought by the tribunal, established to account for the hundreds of thousands of deaths during the regime’s bloody rule.
In a statement, the legal team said Prime Minister Hun Sen and top officials had attempted to prevent the testimony of certain witnesses and made efforts to derail further tribunal cases from proceeding.
The ministers collaborated on a "common criminal plan" to interfere with justice and the defendants' rights to a fair trial, the statement said.
Dutch lawyer Michiel Pestman told Agence France-Presse that his team had requested that the deputy prosecutor investigate the allegations of obstruction of justice.
"We want to make clear to everyone that what's going on is not only unacceptable, it's a crime even under Cambodian law," Pestman said.
Keo Remy, spokesman at the Quick Press Reaction Unit (PRU) in Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, dismissed the lawsuit at a press conference on Monday.
“This is a matter of diverting [attention] from the battleground,” he said.
“What I regret is that the defense lawyer has the obligations to check the docket of his client, Nuon Chea, but they didn’t do their job.”
The lawsuit is the latest development in the complex tribunal process, which has been dogged by rumors of corruption and inefficiency since it was established seven years ago.
Earlier this month, Siegfried Blunk, the tribunal's international co-investigating judge, resigned citing interference by Hun Sen's government, though several rights groups and Khmer Rouge victims had earlier demanded he step down for “bowing to political pressure” in his handling of the trial process.
Last week, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs, Patricia O'Brien, visited Cambodia and urged the government to "refrain from interfering in any way whatsoever with the judicial process."
Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly denied any interference in the tribunal proceedings.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is called, has so far completed just one trial which led to the jailing last year of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, for 30 years for overseeing the deaths of thousands of people. His case is now under appeal.
Four former Khmer Rouge leaders currently on trial in Case 002 are charged with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for their role in overseeing the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-1979. All four deny the accusations.
Last month, the court divided the case against surviving Khmer Rouge leaders into a series of smaller cases in order to speed up proceedings.
Many of the defendants are elderly and infirm, and observers fear that not all of them will live to see a verdict.
Obstacles to the process
Ou Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Center of Human Rights, suggested on Monday that a trial through a national court may help remove obstacles to the trial process.
“Before we trusted the tribunal, but now it’s time [to do something else] because everyone doubts it.”
Nuon Chea’s lawyers also said they felt forced to file the lawsuit through a national court after the tribunal had repeatedly refused to investigate the allegations of obstruction of justice.
But Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the ECCC, maintained that the tribunal would continue its mission unhindered by the lawsuit or influence from the Cambodian government.
“The tribunal has repeatedly made itself clear that it will do its job independently.”
The ECCC announced last week that it will go ahead with Case 002 against the four aging members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime leadership on Nov. 21 despite the resignation of Blunk and an earlier delay after the accused complained that their health conditions made them unfit to stand trial.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the tribunal beyond the second trial.
Many do not expect the third and fourth cases to proceed.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Hassan Abukasem. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.