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(New York) – The Cambodian government’s refusal to pay local staff at the Khmer Rouge tribunal is the latest attempt to undermine efforts to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 2, 2013, more than half of the Cambodians working on the government payroll at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), set up to try members of the Khmer Rouge, went on strike to protest the government’s failure to pay their salaries since May. The strike includes interpreters, translators, and various judicial and technical staff. The failure to pay staff threatens efforts to finish the first segment of the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Closing statements in the case are scheduled for October and a verdict is expected in the first half of 2014.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has spent years obstructing the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders, but donors to the court have played along and continued to subsidize a seriously compromised court,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Donors should finally call his bluff and withhold future contributions until the Cambodian government pays its agreed share of the costs of holding the Khmer Rouge accountable.”

Under the agreement with the United Nations establishing the ECCC, the UN pays the salaries of UN-appointed staff, while the Cambodian government pays the salaries of government-appointed staff. The government has regularly demanded contributions from donors to pay the salaries of government-appointed staff. The resulting withholding of salaries by the government has periodically hobbled the court’s work.

International donors, led by Japan, have been the sole bankrollers of the UN side of the ECCC. Some have also previously provided financial assistance to pay some of the government’s agreed share, though donors have said they would no longer do so.

The ECCC was set up in 2006 following an agreement with the United Nations according to which it operates within the Cambodian judiciary but with UN assistance. The tribunal has the mandate to try “senior leaders” and others “most responsible” for Khmer Rouge crimes from 1975-1979. However, stalling tactics and obstruction by Hun Sen and the Cambodian government mean that thus far it has only convicted one person: Kaing Gech Eav, alias Duch, the chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison and torture center. Duch confessed to his crimes in case 001 and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Two of the four “senior leaders” charged by the ECCC have either died or been declared too ill to stand trial. The two “senior leaders” still on trial, Nuon Chea, 87, and Khieu Samphan, 82, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in case 002. Concern that they might also die before a verdict led to a Trial Chamber decision to have a first trial segment trying them only in connection with the Khmer Rouge relocation in 1975 of urban Cambodians and others to rural areas previously under Khmer Rouge control. A trial for other crimes for which they are indicted, including genocide, may never happen.

Attempts by UN prosecutors and judges to investigate five additional Khmer Rouge suspects – divided into cases 003 and 004 – have been publicly and repeatedly opposed by Hun Sen. One died, and the health of several others is precarious. A UN-nominated investigating judge is currently investigating cases 003 and 004, attempting to ascertain whether some or all of the four suspects should be indicted for trial. But without government cooperation, trials will be impossible.

While Hun Sen has blocked the tribunal from holding speedy trials and limited the number of accused, many Cambodian staff have worked hard to bring the alleged perpetrators of some of the world’s worst international crimes to justice. However, many staffers are bitter at what they have described to Human Rights Watch as government interference and corruption at the court, which has contributed to the readiness of many to stop work in the face of government nonpayment of their salaries. One told Human Rights Watch: “Why should we work for free if the government doesn’t really care about who committed most of the crimes or our standard of living?”

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has never been committed to prosecuting more than a few Khmer Rouge leaders, apparently to protect members of his party and government who were also in the Khmer Rouge,” Adams said. “The government has demonstrated it has plenty of cash to pay a bloated army and buy elections, making its refusal to put money into the Khmer Rouge tribunal a symbol of its utter contempt for justice in Cambodia. Donors and the UN should insist that the Cambodian government stop pretending to be too poor to provide accountability to the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge.”

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