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HONG KONG — To watch the court proceedings, to hear the lawyers’ objections, to sit through the delays and the quibbles and the endless parsing of words, it’s enough to make a good number of Cambodians want to simply unshackle the prisoners and set them free. Game over.
But these prisoners — they’re just three arrogant old men now — had once been the most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the ruthless Communist regime that killed 1.7 million Cambodians. The court’s raison d’etre now seems to spin less and less around the horrors the men perpetrated and how much prison time they should serve; more to the point is how they are being judged by the United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.
There has been an explosion of frustration over the tribunal in recent days, ever since another international investigating judge tendered his resignation. Laurent Kaspar-Ansermet of Switzerland said the court is now “dysfunctional,” riven with petty intrigues and a carrying a political taint that keeps it from investigating well-documented crimes of well-known Khmer Rouge alumni who are living openly and freely in Cambodia.
Mr. Kaspar-Ansemet complained, for example, that a Cambodian fellow judge, You Bunleng, had questioned his authority and had blocked his access to cars and drivers. He said he would not let him use the court’s official seal to stamp legal documents. His resignation statement is here,although he was still at work on Tuesday.
Despite tens of millions of dollars in international funding — Australia kicked in an additional $1.7 million on Monday — the tribunal has convicted only one person so far, the former prison warden known as Duch. His prison sentence was recently extended to a life term, even as he testifies in alarming detail against his three former superiors — Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. Video of his courtroom testimony, with good English translations, can be watched here.
Nate Thayer, a journalist and author with deep knowledge of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, also has a deep disdain for the tribunal, which he told me Tuesday was “an insidious, dangerous mockery of the rule of law that sets an unacceptable new model for legitimizing a 21st-century version of a Stalinist show trial.’’