After almost two hours of debate, the National Assembly on Wednesday approved a revised version of the law to try Khmer Rouge leaders that eliminates the death penalty as a punishment, clearing up a technical glitch that has stalled the law for several months.
Meanwhile, King Norodom Sihanouk told former Untac chief Yasushi Akashi that although justice has to be served in a Khmer Rouge tribunal, previous agreements and negotiations made with some of the Khmer Rouge leaders have to be taken into consideration.
Akashi said he interpreted the King’s comments Wednesday as partly referring to the amnesty he granted to Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary after he led a mass defection of cadre in 1996, crippling the communist movement. At that time, the King said the amnesty applied only to the 1979 war crimes conviction for Ieng Sary, who was tried in absentia, and did not bar him from prosecution in a future tribunal.
“The King has a broad perspective [on the Khmer Rouge],” Akashi said. “It’s not from a narrow, technical, strictly legal view, but from [a view based on the] peace and security this country badly needs.”
But the King, a constitutional monarch, also noted that he “reigns but doesn’t govern,” according to Akashi.
The King will be the last one to decide whether to approve the Khmer Rouge trial law, after it is reviewed by the Senate. The King’s approval would clear the way for the government and the UN to finalize a memorandum of understanding formally establishing a tribunal.
Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the government expects the law will be promulgated in August and added that the process would move forward with or without the UN.
“The time doesn’t permit us to wait,” he said. “The train is leaving and it doesn’t care whoever is late.”
Eighty-six lawmakers approved the Khmer Rouge law, with two parliamentarians abstaining from voting. Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, one of the National Assembly members who didn’t vote, said the Khmer Rouge leaders deserved to get the death penalty after their atrocities, including burning children alive.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is traveling in the US and Canada, issued a statement saying the “government told lies to the National Assembly at the previous debate on the law by claiming that the government had incorporated in the draft law all the demands forwarded by the UN.”
He was referring to a letter sent by UN legal expert Hans Corell, who raised concerns about certain articles in the law, most notably asserting that the measure should make it clear that any Khmer Rouge leader under the jurisdiction of the tribunal, including Ieng Sary, could be tried.
Sam Rainsy urged lawmakers to push the government “to clear all the reservations made by the UN.”
With the elimination of the death penalty, which was indirectly referred to in the original law but is outlawed under the Constitution, Minister of Cabinet Sok An said he believes the law needs no other revisions and the measure is in its final stage of review. Once the law is approved by the King, Sok An said he will restart negotiations with Corell to hammer out the memorandum.
“I see no obstacles in the next talks because important principles have been worked out already,” Sok An said.
The law stipulates that only “senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those who were most responsible” will be tried.
Only Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok and Tuol Sleng prison chief Duch are in custody awaiting a tribunal.
Akashi said he agreed with Hun Sen’s previous statements that trying certain Khmer Rouge leaders, such as Ieng Sary, could bring war again and that another approach other than a full-scale trial may be useful in dealing with Pol Pot’s colleagues.
“There is serious concern and deep fear that after Cambodia has finally found stability, it might be plunged again into war with the Khmer Rouge,” said Akashi, who is here on his first visit to Cambodia after leaving in 1993 with the end of the Untac mission.
He said the need “for justice needs to be harmonized with the need for security, peace and the sentiment of national reconciliation.” He also reiterated his stance that whether a Khmer Rouge trial is held and how it should be conducted should be left up to Cambodians, with some advice from the international community.
“Cambodians can be trusted,” Akashi said. “You should not go to foreigners for answers.”
In addition to discussing the Khmer Rouge trial, Akashi said the King also thanked him for Untac’s success, and noted that the King’s wisdom has steered Cambodia out of many crises.
“Cambodia has never left my heart,” Akashi said. “When I came here, many of you said ‘Welcome home.” And this home is much better than before. You are on your own. It’s good that Cambodia is trying to stand on its own feet.”
Akashi left Cambodia Wednesday evening after a four-day visit that included meetings with Hun Sen, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Senate President Chea Sim.
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