Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ramblings from the court

Okay, I'm going to ramble on a bit here but I wanted to get down some thoughts from the murder trial I attended on Friday, here in Phnom Penh. It was the first murder trial I've been to, my only other experience at court was a juror on an open and shut death inquest many years ago, so I'm a virtual novice and like most people, I'm ashamed to say my only experience of courts is from the television.
I found the Khmer courtroom a relaxed and very different place from my little experience of a British courtroom. Not austere at all and so relaxed that at a break in proceedings, when the rain on the corrugated rooftop made it impossible to hear what was being said, the blue-uniformed defendants were allowed to wander around the small room, mingling with their family and friends. There was one prison warder for the five defendants, though I did clock two army personnel with AK-47 rifles standing in the shadows outside. During the hearing and after they'd answered questions, the defendants squatted on a tiny wooden bench at the front of the courtroom with their back to everyone except the three presiding judges. Each of them looked frightened by the ordeal, cowed and apologetic in their body language and far removed from their alleged status as cold-blooded killers. Khem Nguon, who was the leader of the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas to surrender to the Cambodian government a decade ago looked anything but the strutting, media-courting individual that enjoyed the high profile he achieved after his former bosses, Pol Pot and Ta Mok, lost favour in the die-hard guerrilla hierarchy. He lent heavily on the 'invalid card' complaining of hearing difficulties and at one point collapsed whilst giving evidence even though the judges had offered him a chair. His two grown-up children were allowed to administer help to their frail-looking father. His blue prison outfit was 'less uniform' than his fellow defendants and I got the vibe that he receives a different level of treatment than they do, though as a man with connections and a former brigadier-general in the Army, that shouldn't come as a surprise. And don't forget, he is afterall, innocent until proven guilty.
That brings me to some real concerns that I have. The whole trial was conducted in Khmer. A friend accompanied me to the court - I arrived at 11.30am, more than three hours after it had begun - so I missed a big chunk and as I don't understand Khmer, I had to rely on my friend's translation. And she is not a translator. However, I felt I got the gist and that gist did not overwhelm me with the weight of evidence against the accused. This was a murder and abduction trial yet much of the evidence consisted of uncorroborated hearsay and interviews that were conducted a decade ago without witness statements being signed or thumb-printed at that time. The men admitted to being present either at the kidnap or at Christopher Howes' death. In their view, that was their level of involvement, and at all times they were acting under orders from superiors, which would've meant death if they didn't do as they were told. None of them admitted to being in charge or of pulling the trigger. But then I didn't expect them to, its the prosecution's job to present that evidence, and I didn't feel convinced they did that. But this is not a case where the prosecution has to convince a jury. It will be the decision of the three presiding judges as to whether the evidence is good enough to convict on the charges of kidnap, murder and membership of an outlawed group. As for their interpretation of the evidence and exactly how much evidence is required to convict at a Cambodian trial, we will have to wait until 14 October to find out.
What else did I glean from proceedings? Well, there was no forensic evidence produced in court and there was no positive identification of the accused by members of the MAG demining team that were kidnapped at the same times as Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth. The investigation by the Cambodian intelligence officers and British police that were sent to assist a decade ago appeared to be more of a fact-finding exercise than a formal police-style enquiry. They obtained statements from key witnesses at that time, including some of the defendants, but now standing in court some ten years later, their stories had changed, their memories had faded and the blame for the order to kidnap and kill was laid at the door of two guerrillas who have subsequently died. How convenient. As I said I wasn't overwhelmed by the weight of evidence. It was flimsy at best. If convictions are achieved, they may be for conspiracy or of a lesser sentence than originally hoped. Who can tell, second-guessing Cambodian judges is not, and never will be, an exact science.
What did really annoy me though was the relaxed nature of the trial. I know its Cambodia and everything is easygoing but this was a murder trial, not a petty bag-snatch. Mobile phones were not switched off, and even the defense and prosecution team received incoming calls and left the room whilst proceedings continued. It was really disconcerting. The security personnel were the worst culprits, their phones were the loudest and they constantly left the door open, so the honking horns and traffic sounds from the street flooded through the courtroom and drowned out the evidence being given. The judges appeared determined to finish the case in one day. They rattled through the defendants testimony and then the witnesses with much haste, questioning was basic and lacking any depth, closing statements were less than passionate by both the prosecution and defense teams and the decision to adjourn pending the verdict came quickly and was almost lost in the frenzy of everyone trying to leave the court, with proceedings ending at just past 7pm in the evening. However, I was pleased to see a couple of members of the British press in court, Tom Bell (Daily Telegraph) and Ian MacKinnon (The Guardian) had made the trip from Bangkok to be present and MAG's Chief Executive Lou McGrath OBE had flown over from the UK to witness the proceedings. Now we must wait until the judges deliver their verdict on 14 October. It's been a wait of 12 years for justice for Christopher and Hourth - we can wait a little longer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like Cambodian's broken legal/ court system. If this is how it proceeds with a high profile international case such as Mr Howe's. Imagine a case involving poor locals, there is no justice. Money and corruptions win any cases 100% of the time.

October 5, 2008 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Rupert, MAG said...

Andy, it does not appear to be anything like a British court process, as it is actually based on the French process, more guilty until proved innocent than vice versa. As such, the judge has an investigating role and the trial last Friday was more of a showpiece where the judge has a chance to sum up if you like and the lawyers try to make any points to try and influence the proceedings. The rationale being that the judge has spent a significant amount of time already investigating the case and the public trial more a summing up of a prior, unseen investigation by the judge and his investigating team. What has been instrumental is the very significant investigation (and not a fact finding mission as you put it) undertaken by Dixon et al which has served as the basis of the investigation. There is significant corroborative evidence that did not see the light of day in court as this has already been reviewed by the judge. This includes confessions. The evidence from this mission in 1998/9 is extremely comprehensive and certainly significantly more than was presented in court. Hope that helps explain things a little. Obviously, hoping for a satisfactory result Tuesday. Regards.

October 10, 2008 4:21 PM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Thank you for your insight Rupert, most helpful. I was really hoping that the judge will have more to go on than what came out in court, and it seems that he will. If the court appearance was designed as a 'show-trial' then it didn't really score on that front either, it just left me feeling that the evidence was paper-thin.
As I said, this was my first time in a Cambodian court and I didn't 'get' all of it, so I hope that we do get a result on Tuesday that has its roots firmly in seeking justice on behalf of the deceased, and not a verdict that skates over the evidence and goes for the political outcome.
Altogether a very unsatisfactory way of dealing with a murder trial in front of a public audience. I hope the judge's summing up will provide an insight into the evidence he has seen, but we didn't.
Thanks again Rupert, I am obliged for your input.

October 10, 2008 4:51 PM  

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