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In the Shadow of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal: The Domestic Trials of Nuon Paet, Chhouk Rin and Sam Bith, and the Search for Judicial Legitimacy in Cambodia

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In 1994, Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked a train in Kampot province, Cambodia, taking hostage three young Western backpackers. Two months later, after negotiations for their release collapsed, the three were murdered. Australian, British, and French government representatives exerted considerable diplomatic pressure on the Cambodian government, demanding that those responsible for the kidnapping and murders be brought to justice. In response, three former Khmer Rouge commanders, Chhouk Rin, Nuon Paet and Sam Bith, were arrested, and in a series of trials that lasted from 1999 until 2006, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by Cambodian domestic courts.

Crucially, these trials took place in the middle of difficult negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations over the scope and nature of the proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal. A key point of disagreement was over the proper role in the tribunal for Cambodia's notoriously inefficient, corrupt and government-dominated judiciary. For that reason, the trials became a closely watched test of the Cambodian legal system, and took on a symbolic weight unusual for domestic trials. Dismissed by some observers as mere show trials aimed at legitimizing Prime Minister Hun Sen on the international stage, the trials nevertheless marked a significant step forward in the development of a functioning – albeit seriously flawed – judiciary.

This article is the first to examine these highly significant cases. The Paet, Bith and Rin trials demonstrate the ability of Cambodian judges to convict Khmer Rouge members brought before them; what remains less clear is whether the Cambodian judicial appointees to the tribunal will be capable of meeting internationally recognized standards of justice. Perhaps, if permitted by their government to do so, they will grow to meet this historic challenge. If they do not, then the trials of Paet, Bith and Rin, may prove to be the high watermark in the search for judicial legitimacy in Cambodia.


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