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Corruption may undermine Khmer Rouge justice

  • 23 February 2009

On 17 February, a gaunt former school teacher walked into a packed courtroom in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, flanked by lawyers and lit by the flashes of the international press corps.

Amid the procedural banalities of the ensuing hearing, an observer could be forgiven for mistaking the momentous nature of the event: more than 30 years after its overthrow by an invading Vietnamese army, a senior leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was sitting in the dock in a duly constituted court of law.

Kang Kek Ieu, better known by his revolutionary alias Duch, was the self-confessed chief of Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which oversaw the torture and eventual execution of as many as 16,000 'enemies' of the revolution. The court has also indicted a further four senior Khmer Rouge, who are set to face trial for the deaths of the estimated 1,700,000 people who perished under the regime during 1975–79.

But the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) — a hybrid court combining local and international staff — has set itself a mandate that goes far beyond the goal of rendering impartial verdicts.

According to its website, the ECCC intends that the trials will help 'ease the burden that weighs on the survivors', as well as 'strengthen our rule of law and set an example to people who disobey the law in Cambodia and to cruel regimes worldwide'.

But both these aims of judicial reform and historical catharsis vastly overrate the demonstrative power of international justice in the current Cambodian context.

Abstract norms of international justice have virtually no precedent in Cambodia, where in the 1970s a nascent modern judicial system was smothered in the cradle by the Khmer Rouge. Nominally independent, the judiciary today is in practice wholly subservient to the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

This reflects the nature of the one-party state and the piecemeal democratisation that has taken place since the UN-brokered elections of 1993. Despite the halting progress of the ECCC, politically-motivated shootings of journalists and trade union leaders continue to go unpunished.

Whether even a flawlessly impartial ECCC trial could reform such a system of engrained patronage is an open question. Indeed the opposite seems to be the case. Yash Gai, the former United Nations human rights envoy to Cambodia, wrote in The Standard on 8 February that 'the weakness and corruption within the national legal system have infected the ECCC,