Khmer Rouge Tribunal limping on without Cambodian staff

Note: Before I could get this article published the UN went and decided to loan the Cambodian government enough cash to pay the outstanding salaries owed to the court’s Cambodian workers so I figured I might as well put it up here. A press release about the loan can be found here.

Cambodia’s troubled Khmer Rouge tribunal is managing to limp toward a verdict in the first “mini trial” of “brother number two” Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan, despite ongoing strike action by 134 of the court’s operational staff.

Even as the deadline for final submissions in Case 002/01 is pushed back again to September 26, the court is marshalling its remaining resources to keep work underway.

But questions remain as to how long it can continue without the Cambodian audio/visual, IT, legal support, cleaning and security staff, translators and interpreters who are refusing to come to work.

The tribunal, properly known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is a joint venture between the United Nations and the Cambodian government.

However, despite increasingly frantic fundraising efforts, the Cambodian government component of the court – which is supposed to fund operational costs – has suffered continuing money problems, with the budget shortfall for 2013 estimated at $2.9 million.

The 134 workers began striking – for the second time this year – on September 1 over unpaid salaries for June, July and August.

A fundraising tour of the various Asean nations last month by the UN’s special expert to the tribunal David Scheffer and Cambodian government spokesman Keo Remy came up dry.

Most critical at the current stage of proceedings are the more than 30 translators and interpreters needed to transcribe documents into the Khmer language and facilitate discussions between Nuon Chea (whose English is limited) and his lawyers.

Court spokesman Lars Olsen said 23 translators and interpreters directly employed by the UN had been “tasked to prioritise translation of documents directly related to the closing submissions in Case 002/01”. He said other less time sensitive translations had been put on hold.

Olsen said the UN had also “outsourced” translation of some documents to an outside company with which it already had a contract however he denied that extra money had been spent making up the shortfall of manpower created by the strike.

The strike had not yet delayed the trial, he added, but he refused to speculate on how long the court could continue its work without the 134 national staff.

“The longer the strike goes on the more effect it will have on day to day operations,” he said.

The due date for written submissions, which was in August extended from September 12 to September 19, was last week again extended to September 26.

A court memo said: “it is clear that all of the parties, for varying reasons, would benefit in the preparation of their Closing Briefs by an extension of the filing deadline. Therefore, the Chamber grants the extension of the Closing Brief deadline until 26 September 2013 for all parties.”

Chea and Samphan, both in their 80s, are facing charges to do with forced population movements including the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh and the execution of Khmer Republic soldiers at Toul Po Chre. Other accusations are to be dealt with in further “mini trials”.

Theirs is the second of four trials of senior figures involved in the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled Cambodia from 1975 until 1979 and was allegedly responsible for the deaths an estimated two million people.

Case 001 saw the tribunal find Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, the head of Phnom Penh’s notorious S-21 torture and execution camp, guilty of crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010.

Open Society Justice Initiative tribunal monitor Heather Ryan said in an email it was clear that in spite of the strike the court was “pulling out all the stops” to reach a stage where the judges’ deliberations on Case 002/001 could begin.

“They may be able to accomplish that with the strategies they are employing,” Ryan said.

“The real test at this point is whether the strike and loss of Cambodian staff is having an effect on the fair trial rights of the accused.

“The accused are entitled to sufficient translation and interpretation services to understand the proceedings as they are occurring and to participate with their counsel.”

She said the strike could potentially prevent hearings for closing arguments taking place as scheduled between October 16 and 31.

However, Ryan added that there was “no evidence yet of problems in these areas”.

“Assuming the court can hobble through to the point of deliberations in the Case 002 trial, there is still much work to be done and it cannot go on indefinitely or complete its mandate without resolving the current and longer term funding situations,” she said.

“Donors, the government of Cambodia and the UN owe it the court and the Cambodian people to step up and immediately commit the funding needed to complete the court’s mandate.”

The court is expected to hand down its verdict in Case 002/01 during the first half of 2014.

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