Resignation Casts Further Doubts Over Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia

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Resignation Casts Further Doubts Over Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia

What is the future of the United Nations-backed war crimes court?

The international co-investigating judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Mark Harmon, has resigned casting further doubts over whether fresh trials will proceed at the United Nations-backed war crimes court, now in its ninth year.

Harmon had built himself an enormous reputation for hard work and dedication in his pursuit of justice for the victims of Pol Pot’s regime and attracted his fair share of critics who claimed he had expanded the remit of the tribunal beyond the court’s initial scope.

He said it was “with considerable regret that I have tendered my resignation, for strictly personal reasons.”

“It was an honor to have been selected to serve … along with my international and Cambodian colleagues, to pursue justice on behalf of the many victims who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

The resignation will become effective once his successor has been sworn into office.

His investigations had raised the controversial prospect that Meas Muth, a Khmer Rouge navy commander, would be prosecuted in Case 003 while Im Chem a former district chief, and Ao An  a former deputy zone secretary were expected to be tried in Case 004.

This was not to the liking of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has opposed further prosecutions, and local staff at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), who have been accused of orchestrating routine delays by refusing to work with Harmon’s office.

The ECCC was tasked with charging the most senior leaders of the regime blamed for the deaths of about two million people between 1975 and 1979. Defense counsel has argued that none of their clients fit that legal criteria of ‘most senior’.

Meas Muth, Im Chem and Ao An have been charged in absentia, but judicial police have refused to act on arrest warrants. That means all three continue to live freely in the Cambodian countryside.

Harmon was also the fifth person to resign his position.

Four years ago, his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng had Case 003 shut down but it was reopened amid sharp criticisms that important procedures were not followed. Key witnesses were not questioned, and significant crime sites were not investigated.

Laurent Kasper-Ansermet resigned in March 2012 after complaining of “active opposition” to investigations by You Bunleng which he said had led to a “dysfunctional situation”.

Harmon, an American whose work as a prosecutor includes the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, took on the cases 003 and 004 following his appointment in mid-2012.

One senior court observer stressed Harmon’s resignation was genuinely for personal family reasons and not due to any of the legal dramas which have unfolded at the ECCC.

“He’s disappointed to have to leave since he was making visible progress and he wanted to see how much further he could take it,” he said. “His successor will certainly have a challenge on his hands. It will be another chance for You Bunleng to try to see if he can persuade his counterparts, this being his fifth counterpart, to agree with the national view of the cases.”

In cases 001 and 002, the ECCC secured convictions of crimes against humanity against three senior Khmer Rouge leaders; Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the S21 extermination centre; Khieu Samphan, former head of state; and Nuon Chea, brother number two.

All are behind bars for crimes against humanity, with Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea still going through the appeals process and facing further charges of genocide. Former foreign minister Ieng Sary and the military chief Ta Mok died in prison before their cases could be heard.

“Harmon has been painstaking in his attention to detail, working diligently and without fanfare,” one court official, who declined to be named, added. “He will be missed.”

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt