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Analysis: Cambodia's judiciary may not benefit from UN-backed genocide trial after all.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia’s U.N.-backed tribunal has been hailed as a model for the nation’s struggling judiciary. But will the work of the tribunal really change anything in Cambodia’s court system? Observers say it won’t be easy.
Kaing Guek Eav was sentenced on Monday to 35 years in prison — which was reduced to 19 years for time served — by a joint U.N.-Cambodian court, a judgment that came more than three decades after the Khmer Rouge’s murderous 1975-79 rule.
Better known as Duch, the gaunt former revolutionary oversaw the deaths of more than 12,000 people as head of torture center S-21, now the site of a museum in Phnom Penh. A court statement described him as showing a “high degree of efficiency and zeal” at the prison, where on a single day 160 children were executed.
His conviction was welcomed as a milestone, with some observers saying they hoped the court’s example would strengthen Cambodia’s much-criticized judiciary.
Surya Subedi, U.N. human rights envoy for Cambodia, said the “verdict signifies a commitment by the government of Cambodia to uphold the rule of law and ensure accountability according to internationally accepted standards for fair trial.”
“I hope that this landmark conviction will serve as a catalyst for the government to address impunity and accelerate its legal and judicial reforms.”
A local rights group said the reduction of Duch’s sentence upheld his rights, although the 19-year punishment met with the dismay of some Cambodians. The court lessened Duch’s sentence because of time served and because he was detained illegally from 1999 to 2007, a violation of his rights.
“This reduction in sentence provides a good example to the domestic courts of Cambodia, whose detention practices remain a serious concern, and serves as a reminder of the universality of human rights,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said.
These sentiments come against the backdrop of a national court system that is widely considered dysfunctional, with corruption and violations of basic rights the norm.
A June report from the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, for example, said a third of roughly 800 monitored defendants were convicted in absentia, and that more than 90 percent of their trials lasted less than half an hour. A study this month from CCHR found that judges commonly answered cell phones during trials.
In its most recent annual report on human rights in Cambodia, the U.S. State Department painted a grim picture of corruption and independence of the judiciary.
“The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive, and there was widespread corruption among judges, prosecutors and court officials,” the report said.
The lengthy process to create the Khmer Rouge tribunal began in 1997, when the Cambodian government asked for U.N. help to try those most responsible for the crimes of the regime, which is blamed for an estimated 1.7 million deaths. Negotiations broke down in 2002, but an agreement was eventually reached to set up a joint court in Cambodia composed of local and foreign staff.