Observers of the Khmer Rouge tribunal urged the UN and Cambodia to resolve lingering problems at the hybrid court, which saw the resignation of an international judge on Monday.
The investigating judge, Siegfried Blunk, said he was leaving the court due to repeated statements by government officials opposed to two cases before his office.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the court must now open “frank and non-political” discussions to ensure its independence.
“If there is no discussion, this tribunal will be remembered as a court that failed to find justice for the victims of this regime,” he said.
The hybrid court, the first of its kind, has spent $150 million and so far completed only one trial since 2006. Four more Khmer Rouge leaders, who are almost all in their 80s, are supposed to be tried next year.
But it was over two additional cases, which would require five more indictments, that Blunk resigned, saying that any decision he made would be colored with the perceived pressure of government statements against them.
Ou Virak said the resignation will cause greater mistrust of the court, both in Cambodia and the wider international community.
Clair Duffy, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the issues driving the resignation should have been solved earlier. Blunk, who was in his position for less than a year, is the second judge to leave that position, following the departure of Marcel Lemonde in November 2010.
“I very much believe this is not going to solve the problem,” said Duffy, who recommended an independent investigation of the investigating judges’ office. “In fact, we are going to see the same problems present themselves a third time with a third international judge in that position.”
“The Cambodian government and the UN need to sit down at the table and have some honest and frank discussions about where they want to see this court go and what kind of credibility they would like to see it have at the end of the process,” she said.
Blunk’s resignation could also have implications for the upcoming atrocity crimes trial for Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, other court observers said.
His resignation could be used by defense lawyers to protest against court bias and to call for the dismissal of judges or the dismissal of their clients, they said.
In a statement attributed to Blunk on the tribunal’s website, he said he would not be influenced by government statements against cases 003 and 004, made by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, “his ability to withstand such pressure by government officials and to perform his duties independently could always be called in doubt, and this would also call in doubt the integrity of the whole proceedings in cases 003 and 004.”
Khieu Kanharith said Monday there was no political interference in the court’s work.
Blunk specifically cited remarks by Hor Namhong, who was quoted in the Cambodia Daily last week saying, “On the issue of the arrest of more Khmer Rouge leaders, this is a Cambodian issue… This issue must be decided by Cambodia.”
Hor Namhong told reporters Tuesday he had a “clear conscience” regarding the two cases. He said he was emphasizing the Cambodian government’s responsibility to “the nation’s destiny.”
The government, he said, “has the right to express its own view, that if the court’s actions undermine security, or make war, who is responsible for it?”
On Tuesday, Amnesty International, the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Asian Human Rights Commission all called on the UN to guard the work of the court against political interference.
“The UN needs to seek public guarantees from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government of full cooperation in all four cases,” James Goldston, OSJI’s executive director, said in a statement.
Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said the court would not comment on the statements.
Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who had called for Blunk’s resignation last week, said Cambodian judge You Bunleng should also resign. Neither judge has properly investigated the two cases before them, Adams said.
“We’ve asked them to follow the evidence,” he said. “And if it leads to a person of low-level, or to a high-level person, you should act. You should follow the evidence, and you shouldn’t care about politics. That’s not their job.”