UN Legal Team Walk Out on Stymied KR Cases

Judge Blunk sought staff’s dismissal for ‘disloyalty’

UN legal officers have since April deserted the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s investigative office, re­signing or transferring out as confrontations with Co-In­vesti­gating Judge Siegfried Blunk became insurmountable.

The ongoing departure of the office’s international legal team follows sharp disagreements over the decision to shut down an in­vestigation of the revolutionary military, which was met with strong opposition by legal officers within the Of­fice of the Co-In­vestigating Judges.

In response to questions submitted yesterday, Judges Blunk and You Bunleng released a general statement saying they “welcome” the departure of subordinates who fail to recognize the judges’ exclusive judicial authority.

The statement said the staff de­partures would not affect the ability of the office to function as the judges were able to process their two remaining cases “in a competent and timely manner with re­maining staff members, supplemented if necessary by short-term contractors.”

Perhaps unprecedented, the event appeared likely to send shockwaves through the news media, donor community and the rest of the international criminal justice system operated by the UN.

The recently concluded investigation, known as Case 003, concerns alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes occurring across Cambodia with tens of thousands of victims.

Judges Blunk and Bunleng appear poised to dismiss the case for supposed lack of jurisdiction and have reportedly agreed not to investigate Case 003 or Case 004, both of which are opposed by the government.

The departure of the international legal team signaled Judge Blunk’s isolation within his own office.

In response to the judges’ statement, Stephen Heder, a Khmer Rouge historian retained as a consultant, released the contents of a May 5 e-mail to Judge Blunk in which Mr Heder tendered his resignation.

“In view of the judges’ decision to close the investigation into case file 003, effectively without investigating it, which I, like others, believe was unreasonable; in view of the UN staff’s evidently growing lack of confidence in your leadership, which I share; and in view of the toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust generated by your management of what is now a professionally dysfunctional office, I have concluded that no good use can or will be made of my consultancy services to the” Co-Investigating Judges, Mr Heder wrote.

“I therefore decided yesterday to discontinue these services with effect from today.”

Mr Heder declined to comment further.

According to three officials both inside and outside of the tribunal, the concerns of the international legal team were so great that they took the extraordinary step of contacting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prior to the closure of Case 003 at the end of April.

The precise contents of the letter were unclear, but it elicited a response from Judge Blunk, who also wrote to Mr Ban saying that he wanted his subordinates dismissed for “disloyalty” and interference in the administration of justice.

The letters resulted in last month’s visit by a delegation of UN human resources officers and by the UN Special Expert on the tribunal, the American prosecutor Clint Williamson, with both Mr Williamson and the delegation seeking to discuss the matter with the legal team, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The outcome of these visits was unclear yesterday.

The court said last month that Mr Williamson’s visit was “separate” from the visit of the human resources delegation, which a spokesman described as “a normal response” to staffing matters “that arise from time to time in UN field missions.”

Those assertions no longer appear to be entirely true.

Central to the court’s judicial investigations, the legal team has lost at least four members in the past two months and only two now remain, both of whom are also planning to leave, according to officials both inside and outside the tribunal with knowledge of the matter.

Last week, Maud Sarlieve and Valerie Gabard, both associate legal officers, and Kingsley Abbott, a legal adviser, all left the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges. They were preceded by Legal Advisor Jeanne Sulzer, and Mr Heder, who left in April and May respectively.

In addition to warring with his own staff, Judge Blunk has engaged in hostile public disagreements with the International Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley, who has pressed for the court to continue its work in cases 003 and 004.

Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said yesterday that the events within the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges were cause for grave concern.

“It certainly confirms the serious questions about the quality of the work performed by that office,” she said, noting that the court may have difficulty functioning without a legal team.

The court’s second case, which goes to trial this month, was not conducted by Judge Blunk and is a separate matter, she added, describing the legal staff as “whistleblowers” who should not be “attacked for trying to do the right thing.”

“It seems clear to me that these people were legal professionals who wanted to do an appropriate job and had their backs to the wall,” she said. “It’s phenomenal that this is the way they would be treated.”

 

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