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Judge Quits Cambodia's Troubled Khmer Rouge Trial


FILE - People line up to enter the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as a television screen shows former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan, in Phnom Penh.
FILE - People line up to enter the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as a television screen shows former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan, in Phnom Penh.

International investigating judge Mark Harmon has issued a letter of resignation at the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, a court troubled by continued delays and a failure to close at least two cases.

Although Harmon said his resignation this week was for personal reasons, it followed Cambodia’s failure to arrest suspects he named for indictment in two cases still before the court.

Stephen Rapp, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, told VOA the Cambodian government has been sabotaging the investigation of new cases.

"That's been hobbled at this point because of the government's inability and, frankly, unwillingness to make those arrests," he said.

Earlier this year, Harmon charged two new suspects, Im Chaem and Meas Muth, with crimes against humanity, but neither has been arrested and brought to the court.

Court observers say Harmon had made much progress on new cases in the last three years, despite strong opposition by senior Cambodian government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has warned that pursuing more suspects could lead to a new conflict.

“It’s unfortunate at this delicate time in the investigation that Judge Harmon wasn’t able to complete his investigations,” Heather Ryan, tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said. “It’s no doubt that Judge Harmon faced obstacles in his attempts to complete the cases, but I don’t know that was the reason for his resignation.”

Ryan said Harmon’s resignation most likely would mean a delay of months in the pursuit of those cases, because his replacement will have to review the cases.

Eri Kaneko, a spokeswoman for the U.N. secretary-general, said a “smooth transition” would take place and that a reserve judge, Michael Bohlander, has been familiarizing himself with the casework.

Via a spokesman, Harmon’s Cambodian counterpart, You Bun Leng, said he regretted the resignation but respected the decision.

However, John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who has co-authored a book on the tribunal, said Harmon has now become one in a “lengthening line of international judges, prosecutors and investigators who have resigned” from the tribunal.

“Harmon did the right thing, to push forward on cases he believed were within the court’s jurisdiction,” Ciorciari said. “But he may have pushed the cases as far as Hun Sen will let them go.”

Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and Khmer Rouge expert, saw the resignation as “a very significant setback” for the court. Harmon represented “the best that the U.N. has to offer,” he said. “He was one of a few people holding the Cambodian government’s feet to the fire.”

The tribunal, which began operations in 2006 and has since experienced funding issues, corruption and other scandals, has convicted only three Khmer Rouge members so far.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, who are in phase two of their trial, are the most senior leaders to be tried and convicted. In 2010, the tribunal convicted and sentenced to life in prison former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch," for his role in killing more than 14,000 while running the Tuol Sleng center in Phnom Penh.

As many as 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, overwork and executions during the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, which attempted to create an agrarian communist utopia.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.