Corruption may endanger Khmer rouge trials

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MARCO WERMAN: Next door to Thailand, Cambodia is hosting a historic trial. The defendants are five senior Khmer Rouge officials. They're being tried for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in the late 1970s. The United Nations-backed tribunal has both international and Cambodian judges, lawyers, and staff. And the Cambodian staff is going through money faster than expected. That's sparked allegations of corruption. Now, some of the defendants are using the allegations to call into question the whole tribunal. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Phnom Penh.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Cambodia's courts are known for being politically controlled. In fact, some of the Cambodian judges in the Khmer Rouge tribunal have presided over cases that critics have called bald persecutions of the Prime Minister's political enemies. That's one form of political influence that's plaguing the tribunal. Another is the money. Heather Ryan is the observer at the Khmer Rouge tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York. Her group has written several reports over two years about alleged corruption in the tribunal's Office of Administration.

HEATHER RYAN: It's in the form of staff being required to kick back a portion of their salary to people higher on the hierarchy than themselves. It causes concern about whether or not the international standards that should be operating in this court are in fact operating, or whether or not it's business as usual according to the Cambodian domestic court system.

MAGISTAD: Because almost every court document passes through the Office of Administration, there's concern its staffers are susceptible to political pressure from a Cambodian government that doesn't want the tribunal to dig too deeply. That could be because many people in the current government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, are themselves former Khmer Rouge. Concerned by allegations of kick-backs, the UN has suspended the salaries of the administrative staff, and only a special Japanese government grant keeps them paid. The kick backs have been cited repeatedly by the most senior indicted Khmer Rouge officials and their lawyers as a reason why the court can't deliver true justice. Jacques Verges is co-defense attorney for former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan. Verges told the court, ?With the alleged corruption making future funding less certain, and with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen having said this week that he'd just as soon see the tribunal run out of money and shut down, you are just squatters here.?

MAGISTAD: The head of the tribunal's public affairs section, Helen Jarvis, says all this focus on the supposed corruption is overblown and misleading.

HELEN JARVIS: I think that the continuing revival of allegations that have been made more than two and a half years ago just continue to go round and round. But until now, I haven't seen and I don't believe the authorities here have seen any concrete complaint.

MAGISTAD: Are you saying there's no evidence of corruption?

JARVIS: I'm saying none has been brought forward.

MAGISTAD: So you personally believe there is no corruption?

JARVIS: I don't believe anything unless I see it.

MAGISTAD: Meanwhile, some Cambodians say the corruption charges have made them doubt the integrity of the tribunal, including this journalist and Khmer Rouge survivor who's covering it. ?I'm a bit concerned because so many things happening with the court itself in terms of corruption and all that. I still hope they can do a better job to bring justice to the Cambodian people.? At the very least, such people say, there should be a thorough and transparent investigation. Heather Ryan, of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

RYAN: This court was clearly designed and the commitment was made by everyone that this court would operate according to international standards. So our concern is that when there are allegations of corruption that are not really unexpected, that the court, the UN, the donors, the government and the UN have an obligation to deal with them in a transparent and effective way.

MAGISTAD: But the Hun Sen government has refused to let the UN investigate what happened to UN money once it went to Cambodian staffers. The Prime Minister says this would be a violation of Cambodia's sovereignty. At the same time, he's openly said he'd rather see the tribunal run out of money and fail than have it try any more than the five Khmer Rouge leaders already in custody. For now, the tribunal is still moving ahead, but it's not clear for how long or what kind of justice it can ultimately deliver. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.