The Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal was plunged into turmoil yesterday after one of its investigating judges resigned, claiming the government of Cambodia was trying to interfere with the proceedings of the court.
Judge Siegfried Blunk said he was stepping down after several Cambodian ministers suggested it was up to the country to decide which defendants were brought before the court and not the judges. He said it was impossible for him to continue in the role without both his integrity and that of the court being questioned.
“His ability to withstand such pressure by government officials and to perform his duties independently could always be called in doubt,” said a statement issued by the UN-sponsored court.
Precisely who should stand trial for the deaths of up to 1.7m people during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 rule has long been controversial. When Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed for the tribunal to be established – a process that took a decade –he only supported the trial of five former senior members of the Khmer Rouge: Comrade Duch, or Kaing Guek Eav, head of Tuol Sleng torture camp who was sentenced last year to 19 years in jail; Khieu Samphan, the former head of state; Ieng Sary, the foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, the minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the prime minister.
Over the years, campaigners, lawyers and scholars have suggested there was sufficient evidence to try other individuals and two additional cases – known as cases 003 and 004 - were established for judges to examine. It is widely assumed that Meas Muth, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge navy, accused with the kidnap and murder of foreign tourists, air force commander Sou Met, and three regional officials, Aom An, Yim Tith, and Im Chem were among the individuals.
But earlier this year, Mr Blunk, who is German, and his fellow investigating judge drew widespread criticism when they announced their investigation into case 003 had been concluded, even though they had spoken to just a handful of witnesses and had not even interviewed the suspects themselves.
Last week, the campaign group Human Rights Watch, called for the resignation of Mr Blunk and his Cambodian colleague, You Bunleng, saying they had “egregiously violated their legal and judicial duties”.
“The investigating judges concluded their investigation into case 003 without notifying the suspects, interviewing key witnesses, or conducting crime site investigations,” said Brad Adams, of HRW. “This would be shocking for an ordinary crime, but it’s unbelievable when it involves some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities. The Cambodian people have no hope of seeing justice for mass murder as long as these judges are involved.”
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander who eventually fled the country, has always claimed additional trials could damage the fabric of Cambodia. Many believe he is trying to protect senior figures within the political establishment who are themselves former members of the Maoist-inspired rebel group that seized power in Cambodia in 1975, a move that led to the murder and death of up to 1.7m people.
Activists and observers believe it is increasingly unlikely that cases 003 and 004 will ever proceed. In a statement, Ou Virak of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said: “The…charade must end. Judge Blunk’s resignation ends any doubt that the [Cambodian government is] interfering. If the [tribunal’s] door is shut without a full and frank investigation into cases 003 and 004, the UN will have failed the victims of the Khmer Rouge. ”
Cambodia’s minister for information, Khieu Kanharith, last night told the Agence France-Presse that the government had not interfered with the court but that Mr Blunk had failed to cooperate with his colleagues: “Now we leave the issue to the court to decide in accordance with the agreement between Cambodian government and the UN,” he said.
In a statement, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said it was expected that a reserve judge, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, would fill Mr Blunk’s post soon. He added: “The UN has consistently emphasised that the [tribunal] must be permitted to proceed with its work without interference from any entity, including the Royal Government of Cambodia, donor States or civil society.”