Yet more crisis at the ECCC as investigating judge resigns

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) is once again being described in the media and by observers as “in crisis”. The latest problem is the resignation of Siegfried Blunk, the controversial German investigating judge at the tribunal. Blunk, along with his Khmer counterpart Mr. You Bunleng, has been the focus of significant levels of criticism over the last few months. In April they closed the investigation into Case 003 without having interviewed the suspects, and only talking to a small number of witnesses. This prompted the criticism that the investigation office were acting in accordance with the will of the government. In August Blunk and You Bunleng stated that in relation to Case 004 “[t]here are serious doubts whether the (three) suspects are ‘most responsible’.” Observers of the court were shocked at this statement.

More concerns arose when the judges rejected a civil party applicant in Case 003 on the basis that the psychological harm she had experienced as a result of her husband’s forced labour and execution was considered by them to be “highly unlikely to be true”.

The combination of these decisions had led Human Rights Watch to last week call on Blunk and You Bunleng to resign from the tribunal on the basis that they had “egregiously violated their legal and judicial duties”.

Controversy is not new to the office of investigating judges. Blunk replaced French judge Marcel Lemonde after he resigned from his role as international investigator amid what was thought to be a poor working relationship with his Cambodian counterpart. Their disagreement also stemmed from the controversy over cases 003 and 004.

Cases 003 and 004 involve 5 suspects and observers understand that the cases include Meas Muth, a former Khmer Rouge navy commander, who is accused of the kidnap and murder of foreign tourists, air force commander Sou Met, and three regional officials, Aom An, Yim Tith, and Im Chem.

The difficulty for the court is that the Cambodian government has consistently stated that it does not want these cases to be heard. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has repeatedly stated that the cases could “damage the fabric of Cambodia”. At a meeting with the UN head Ban Ki-Moon in 2010 Hun Sen clearly set out the government’s position saying that case 002 would be the last one the ECCC hears.

In his resignation statement, Blunk stated that he had expected Hun Sen’s statement to Mr Ban “did not reflect general government policy”. However, he also cites government interference as a reason for his resignation. At the very least, the statement suggests he was naive given Hun Sen’s dominance of Cambodian government. However, the statement is an nod to the fact that some very poor decisions were taken by the investigating office of the ECCC as the behest of the government. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch stated:

“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.”

Although observers have widely welcomed the resignation they also fear that Blunk’s resignation will allow the UN to dig itself out of the 003case /004 hole by shifting attention away from the calls for investigation and prosecution in these cases. It is a difficult situation for the UN which has had its independence and credibility called into question in relation to the tribunal.  

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights stated yesterday that “The charade must end. The time is nigh for the UN to re-examine its seemingly compliant relationship with the (government).” He concluded that if the tribunal door closed “without a full and frank investigation into Cases 003 and 004, the UN will have failed the victims of the Khmer Rouge.”