When an international court launched a trial in 2009 for senior members of the Khmer Rouge for atrocities committed in Cambodia three decades ago, many felt justice had been delayed.
Today, as the U.N.-backed war crimes court confronts troubling questions over its ability to independently prosecute members of the brutal communist regime, there are fears that justice will also be denied.
At least five key staff members working for the investigating judges in the court have quit amid concerns that they are bowing to Cambodian government demands to dismiss new court cases over the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal faces "a worsening crisis of public confidence," says the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, an independent group monitoring the court since its inception.
The group has called for the U.N. to examine issues of "judicial independence, misconduct, and competency," saying the court has failed to ensure the fullest possible examination of allegations of mass murder and other atrocities against the ex-Khmer Rouge officials.
The attacks against German investigating judge Siegfried Blunk and Cambodian investigating judge You Bunleng of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is formally known, came after they dropped a third case against several Khmer Rouge officials in April without questioning the suspects or visiting sites where the alleged crimes had taken place.
Subsequently, on June 7, the duo rejected a request from Andrew Cayley, the British international co-prosecutor, for further investigative work on the case, known as case number 003, citing procedural grounds which the Justice Initiative argues are "erroneous."
There are concerns that the investigating judges are preparing to do the same with a fourth case.
"This tribunal was established to provide a measure of accountability for Khmer Rouge crimes and an example of the rule of law for Cambodia," said James Goldston, executive director of Justice Initiative.
"In apparently bowing to political pressure, the court undermines both goals," he charged.
Cambodian government objection
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, has repeatedly voiced his objection to further Khmer Rouge trials, saying they could plunge the country into civil war.
Stephen Heder, a Cambodia expert who quit last month as adviser to the court, said in his resignation letter that he left because the investigating judges had decided to close the third Khmer Rouge case “effectively without investigating it, which I, like others, believe was unreasonable."
Heder, who teaches at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said he and others had lost confidence in the leadership of the investigating judges, who had created a “toxic atmosphere of mutual distrust” in “what is now a professionally dysfunctional office."
The tribunal has previously been shaken by allegations of a kickback scheme where its Cambodian employees were forced to pay back a part of their salaries to the government officials who gave them their jobs.
The court was also in the news over a fiasco dubbed Waterlilygate in which one of the international lawyers claimed documents found in a moat filled with lilies had been stolen from his office.
But an often cited allegation is Cambodian government meddling with the tribunal.
Still, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak, said the current turmoil surrounding the court is "unprecedented."
It demonstrates a need for a full and proper investigation into the merits of the third and fourth cases, he said.
"Should the ECCC's door shut without a full investigation into the [two cases], the U.N. will have failed the victims of the Khmer Rouge," Ou Virak said.
The U.N. meanwhile has stressed that the court should be independent and free from any interference.
"Support for the independence of the judiciary is a fundamental principle that the United Nations upholds in Cambodia as elsewhere," said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Judges and prosecutors "must be allowed to function free from external interference by the royal government of Cambodia, the United Nations, donor states, and civil society," he said on Tuesday.
Nesirky also emphasized that the decision by the investigating judges to conclude their investigation in the third case was only "an interim procedural step".
They must ultimately issue a "closing order," including reasons, which will be available for public scrutiny, he said.
The third case is widely reported to involve two former senior military officers of the Khmer Rouge with each believed responsible for many thousands of deaths.
"Speculating on the content of the closing order at this stage does not assist the independent judicial process," Nesirky said.