Under fire from victims and human rights groups, a German judge has resigned from a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating Khmer Rouge war crimes in Cambodia.
Siegfried Blunk, the tribunal's international co-investigating judge, cited interference by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government for his decision to quit.
He said the government was trying to block further trials of people who may have been involved in atrocities by the Khmer Rouge regime, which was in power during the 1975-79 period when about 1.7 million Cambodians perished in the "Killing Fields."
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is officially called, has so far completed just one trial which led to the jailing last year of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for 30 years for overseeing the deaths of thousands of people.
A second trial involving the Khmer Rouge's four most senior surviving leaders is under way. Many do not expect the third and fourth cases to proceed.
Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the tribunal beyond the second trial.
"Because of these repeated statements, which will be perceived as attempted interference by government officials with Cases 003 and 004, the International Co-Investigating Judge has submitted his resignation," the ECCC said in a statement.
Some rights groups had demanded the resignation of both Blunk and his Cambodian counterpart You Bunleng over their handling of the two new cases. Several Khmer Rouge victims had also accused them of bowing to political pressure to drop the cases.
The United Nations, meanwhile, "is working urgently" to ensure that a reserve co-investigating judge, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet of Switzerland, is available soon to replace Blunk, "so that the important work of the ECCC is not disrupted," said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
"The United Nations has consistently emphasized that the ECCC must be permitted to proceed with its work without interference from any entity, including the Royal Government of Cambodia, donor states or civil society," he said.
Right groups and victims, as expected, hailed Blunk's resignation.
"I think today is a hopeful day because any replacement of this judge is likely to look at the evidence and decide that the cases should go forward and that they should not be dismissed," Brad Adams, the executive Director for the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, told RFA.
Adams said Blunk "had acted unprofessionally, had refused to investigate cases properly and had allowed political interference in the court with his work."
He found Blunk's reason for resigning "interesting."
"His resignation statement blamed the Cambodian government, which is correct because they have from the beginning interfered in the work of the court by saying that the cases should not go forward and by giving instructions to the Cambodian judges and prosecutors, who have followed those instructions."
Asked for any evidence of the alleged instructions, Adams said, "We have been told by numerous people working inside the court—all of whom have wished to remain anonymous—that instructions had been given and that some of the Cambodian personnel had admitted that to some of the international personnel.
"If it was just one person, we wouldn't have repeated it," he said.
Clair Duffy, a court monitor for advocacy group Open Society Justice Initiative, said the international community had to put pressure on Cambodia to cooperate in the third and fourth case investigations.
"They can't just fix this situation by putting another international investigating judge in that position. They need to address the underlying problem first, which is the Cambodian government's public opposition to these cases and its real control over the judicial decision," she said, according to Reuters.
The Khmer Rouge victims also welcomed Blunk's departure.
“We have a great hope [over] his replacement ... This is a hope and an opportunity to pave way for the case file 003 and 004 to be moving forward,” said Seng Theary, the president of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia.
Youk Chhang, the chairman of Phnom Penh–based Documentation Center of Cambodia which is collecting primary documents, photographs, and other materials that chronicle human rights abuses by the Khmer Rouge, called for a UN probe.
“I think by resigning and passing on the burden to others rather than the court itself is an escape from what has been done so far. The United Nations must have an independent investigation into any irregularity in the Office of ECCC investigating unit,” he said.
Reported by RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.