The International Criminal Court (ICC) was asked Thursday to consider hauling Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen before the bench on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
American human rights lawyer Morton Sklar has lodged a complaint with the Hague-based ICC against Hun Sen and his government, accusing him of trying to stop the activities of a U.N.-backed tribunal prosecuting members of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime and of being responsible for "major human rights abuses against the population of Cambodia."
"The purpose of the complaint is to bring international attention and the attention of the international criminal process to the two elements of human rights abuses going on in Cambodia right now," Sklar, who represents a coalition of Cambodian human rights and democracy advocates, told RFA's Khmer Service on Thursday.
He insisted that the ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades after ruthlessly crushing his political opponents.
"I think they have two grounds of jurisdiction — under the genocide provisions because of the efforts of Hun Sen to stop the proceedings of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and in essence to shield the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide from prosecution, and under the crimes against humanity provisions of the Rome Statute because there has been systemic, longstanding, ongoing pattern and practice of repression of the Cambodian population in very violent ways," he said.
The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the world court.
One one Khmer Rouge defendant convicted
The Khmer Rouge tribunal, launched in 2006, so far has convicted only one defendant, Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Cambodia has no death penalty.
Proceedings have been hampered by underfunding, and obstruction by the government of Hun Sen, who counts surrendered Khmer Rouge leaders among his political allies. He himself defected from the group at an early stage.
Critics worry the court will not complete the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, the only two defendants still in custody and accused of playing a leading role in the Communist regime's reign of terror in the late 1970s that left up to 2 million people dead.
Sklar said Hun Sen has tried to stop the activities of the tribunal in their tracks, recollecting that the Cambodian leader had personally warned the U.N. that he will not allow any further investigations or prosecutions to take place.
"The ICC has made clear that that kind of interference in the judicial process constitutes a crime in their process and they have already indicted one person from Kenya for those kinds of abuses."
Sklar charged that Hun Sen's human rights abuses included "executions, dislocations of people from their land on a massive basis, the repression of any kind of opposition or demonstrations, including the fact there is still a ban in place on any kind of public meetings — and that constitutes a crime against humanity under the definition used by the ICC."
Hun Sen had imposed a ban on public protests in early January after a bloody crackdown on workers strikes backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), but the government announced a lifting of the ban in February although some demonstrations continue to be blocked.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) also continues to harass protests by the opposition, which has boycotted parliament and demanded new elections following July 2012 polls which the opposition says were rigged.
The government-appointed national election body declared Hun Sen's party the election winner despite objections.
Getting the case in the queue
Sklar acknowledged that the Cambodia case might not be the topmost priority of the ICC, which is bogged down with more high-profile cases, saying that what is critical is for a preliminary investigation by the prosecutors' office to determine that there is jurisdiction of the case.
"I think the Cambodia case might not be the number-one priority, but as long as the preliminary investigation takes place and as long as the finding is made that there is violation, that is sufficient because that will get the case in the queue," he said.
"That's what's most important — that it is clear that the international community is going to take action against the Hun Sen government on this for major human rights abuses."
Sklar denied suggestions that the case is linked to the political opposition.
"I'm not a politician. What I am concerned are that the human rights standards are met."
Chheang Vun, a senior official of Hun Sen's CPP and spokesman for Cambodia's National Assembly, the country's parliament, downplayed the ICC complaint, saying the government would not pay attention to it and calling it "a waste of time."
He said that the complaint is not credible enough for the court to review the case.
"It is not about justice. The opposition wants only the media attention," he said, accusing it of wanting to use the complaint to "bargain for power."
Sklar said the government should not downplay the case against Hun Sen "because the ICC operates worldwide and he is subject to their jurisdiction even if he stays in Cambodia."
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.