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Translators Strike at Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Halting Proceedings

Cambodian military officials line up in front the top leaders of Khmer Rouge portraits, from right, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, and former Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea, file photo.
PHNOM PENH - More than two dozen translators and interpreters at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal went on strike Monday, making their announcement into the court’s public address system as a hearing was nearly under way.

Cambodian staff have not been paid salaries since December, with the court facing serious funding shortages as it undertakes only its second trial since 2006.

Observers said the walkout could cripple proceedings at the court. And it comes as concerns grow that the aging leaders on trial—Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary—show signs of fragile health. Former foreign minister Ieng Sary was taken to the hospital Monday.

“From the interpreters,” one translator said into the microphone Monday, as an expert witness, Philip Short, a journalist and author of a biography on Pol Pot, prepared to testify. “We, the national staff of translation within [the court], declare a boycott from this Monday until our salaries from December, January and February” are paid.

The presiding judge, Nil Nonn, subsequently suspended the hearing. “The trial cannot proceed with the hearing as scheduled,” he said, following some deliberation.

The international court, which is mirrored by an international side and a Cambodian side, is being conducted in English, French and Khmer. In an open letter, the translators and interpreters said they want an “urgent solution” to the salary problem. Court officials have said they are seeking more funding from donors, but no money has yet been raised to pay for the ongoing operations on the Cambodian side.

“This question could paralyze the court’s proceedings,” Lao Mong Hay, an independent analyst, told VOA Khmer.

Negotiations have failed twice, according to one participant in the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Court administrators threatened to hire different staff for translation, the participant said.

Monday’s walkout further threatens the work of the court, which has been dogged since its inception in 2006 by allegations of mismanagement and corruption, along with apparent political interference from senior Cambodian leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A tribunal spokesman said there had been no progress on the walkout as of Monday evening.