How one man can change the course of justice
By Sacha Passi
Navigating Cambodia’s legal system to seek justice for the millions of people who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge was never touted as an easy task.
At the heart of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)’s constitution is a unique hybrid model that pairs international and Cambodian judges under the protection of the domestic court system.
In May 2006, the ECCC appointed You Bunleng as national co-investigating judge – a role crucial to the progress of tribunal proceedings.
His ability to act impartially and independently of government influence, however, has constantly been called into question.
“All across the court, national judicial actors have sided with publicly-voiced government prerogatives,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “One can only assume that the Cambodian protagonists at the court were chosen precisely because of their willingness to toe the line of the executive.”
Such alleged interference has prompted the consecutive resignations, within six months, of two United Nations-approved international judges – another signpost in a rising tide of allegations that threatens to overshadow the tribunal’s credibility.
One of the ECCC’s most damning moments was the decision of international co-investigating judge Siegfried Blunk and judge Bunleng to close the investigation into case 003 without interviewing suspects and without examining alleged crime sites.
Court observers have called for independent examination into allegations of political interference in the court. Blunk tendered his resignation in October, citing perceptions of attempted official interference.
His successor, reserve international co-investigating judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, has alleged that Bunleng opposed investigations into cases 003 and 004. Senior officials have voiced opposition to further prosecution beyond case 002.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected to Vietnam in 1978, has asserted that case 003 will not proceed and that investigations could destabilise the country; a statement that has cast further doubt over the court’s independence.
“The lack of sound legal basis for discontinuing the investigation suggests that judge Bunleng’s actions are not coincidental,” said Mark Ellis of the International Bar Association, “and can be rightly seen as supporting the government’s on-going interference in the judicial process.”
Bunleng refused to accept Kasper-Ansermet as his new counterpart as he had not been officially appointed and therefore Bunleng deemed any procedural action he took to be legally invalid. He has consistently denied government interference is behind the foot dragging.
“The adherence to the principle of interpretation of the Rules, ECCC Law and Agreements was solely a commitment made by a professional judge, and not an anti-measure against the reserve international co-judge Laurent Kasper Ansermet,” Bunleng said in a statement.
However, such declarations have done little to stem the ‘puppet’ accusations against a man who also holds a position with the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the body responsible for vetoing Kasper-Ansermet’s official appointment.
Whether guided by the government or not, it is clear some believe Bunleng’s actions have stalled further investigations into a third and fourth case, which involve five former mid-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres, leaving some observers to question the court’s integrity and how much responsibility Bunleng should bear if the trial collapses.