Cambodia’s long overdue trial of ageing Khmer Rouge leaders is threatened by a dispute over hefty registration fees for foreign lawyers.
The dispute raises fresh uncertainty over the quest for justice for survivors of one of the 20th century’s most brutal regimes.
After 10 days of intensive negotiations, international and Cambodian judges said on Friday they had agreed rules and procedures for the special tribunal, created to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for atrocities that occurred during their three-and-half year drive to transform Cambodia into a rural agrarian utopia in the 1970s.
But international judges were unwilling go forward with the proceedings as long as the Cambodian bar association – which counts Hun Sen, the powerful Cambodian prime minister, among its members – insists on an “unacceptable” fee for foreign lawyers to represent either the defendants or victims in the case.
The local bar association has reportedly demanded that international lawyers pay $500 merely to be eligible as potential counsel in the tribunal, another $2,000 if they get a client, and $200 per month throughout the proceedings. The fees would also be applied to foreign lawyers working pro bono to represent victims.
International judges believe such fees “severely limit the rights of accused and victims to select counsel of their choice” – an obstacle to a fair, credible process. The judges have urged the bar association to reconsider.
Rupert Skilbeck, the principal defence lawyer, pledged yesterday to hasten agreement between the Cambodian bar and the court to avoid delays, something the tribunal can ill afford given the age and poor health of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
The bar association’s apparent intransigence has heightened concerns over political interference in a process intended to bring a small measure of justice for an estimated 1.7m Cambodians who died of starvation or overwork, or were executed during Khmer Rouge’s rule.
The Cambodian government – led by Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985 – has long claimed publicly that it wants surviving Khmer Rouge leaders put on trial. After six years of protracted, contentious negotiations, the UN and Phnom Penh in 2003 agreed to create a “mixed” tribunal – with foreign and Cambodian judges – to try those “most responsible” for the atrocities.
Yet many Cambodian and foreign human rights activists believe Mr Hun Sen – once a low-level Khmer Rouge cadre himself – remains deeply ambivalent about court proceedings that could cast an unflattering light on the Khmer Rouge pasts of several senior figures in his government, the ruling party, and the military.
“They are afraid that if you have international standards of justice, information will be diffused freely and the truth will come out,” said one prominent Cambodian analyst. “In every campaign, they say, ‘we saved you from the Khmer Rouge’, but this can be the collapse of all that they have built. It is their political lives they are protecting.”
Still, many Cambodian survivors are eager for a trial, which they see as their last hope not just for justice, but for some coherent explanation of the horrors that befell them, before the last of the ageing leaders, and the witnesses, pass away.
“We would like to close the history of the Khmer Rouge, and heal the people who were traumatised,” Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, says.
“It’s not perfect justice, but we cannot wait and dream of the day to punish everyone.”