Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Court Excludes Victims' Voices

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative is deeply concerned by a recent decision by two judges at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia that undermines the principle that victims of international crimes should be given a voice in the courtroom.

The two judges, Siegfried Blunk of Germany and Cambodia’s You Bunleng, are responsible for investigating five individuals alleged to have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during the Khmer Rouge era. They are also responsible for determining whether victims of the alleged crimes may seek official representation in the trial process. 

However, the judges have denied victim status to an apparently legitimate applicant, according to an appeal brief filed recently by the victim’s lawyers. The judges’ decision applies a definition of “victimhood” which precludes family members and other survivors from seeking justice for harm inflicted upon their loved ones—contrary to the court's own established practice.

The victim—whose spouse was executed by the Khmer Rouge—was granted participation rights in the court’s second case against four top Khmer Rouge leaders, on the basis of the same facts. 

If the judges’ new definition of “victim” were applied to the victim participants (known as “civil parties”) in the tribunal’s first case against Kaing Guek Eav, 86 out of 90 participants would have been excluded.  

Earlier this year, the two judges made a similar ruling against an application from Rob Hamill, a New Zealander whose brother was tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative said: “This decision is an affront to the victims of Khmer Rouge crimes. In departing from the body of law set down by this very court, the ruling violates basic principles of fairness, legal certainty, and transparency.” 

These developments further contribute to an already sizeable body of evidence raising serious questions as to the independence, competence, and professionalism of the court’s two co-investigating judges. 

The Justice Initiative reiterates the recommendations it made to the United Nations in June 2011—to conduct an independent investigation into serious allegations that the co-investigating judges at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) are deliberately stymying investigations. 

Goldston added: “Continuing to ignore these allegations only serves to further risk the ECCC’s legacy for justice in Cambodia, as well as to compromise the UN’s own contribution to the development of international criminal law.”