By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - An international judge has resigned from a United Nations-backed tribunal in Cambodia because of alleged interference by the government, which is trying to block further trials of people who may have been involved in atrocities by the Khmer Rouge.
The joint U.N.-Cambodian court said in a statement on Monday that Investigating Judge Siegfried Blunk from Germany had resigned as of October 8, after less than a year in the job.
Senior Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have frequently expressed opposition to further prosecutions in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the court is known, beyond the second trial now under way.
"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.
The identity of the individuals in these cases has never been made public.
The court has so far spent about $100 million and handed down just one sentence, a 35-year jail term commuted to 19 years for Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, for his role in the deaths of more than 14,000 people at the notorious S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh. Many saw that as too lenient.
The current trial, sometimes referred to as 002, involves Nuon Chea, who was "Brother Number Two" in the ultra-maoist Khmer Rouge regime, former President Khieu Samphan, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was social affairs minister.
They face various charges, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, among other charges.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has made no secret of his disdain for the court and has argued that further indictments would simply reopen old wounds.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians -- a quarter of the population -- were killed from 1975-1979, many through torture and execution.
"We want justice. We don't want the court to do its work with forgiveness," said Phoeung Sophy, a 57-year-old street vendor who lost her aunt, three nieces and fiance. "Anybody whose hands were stained with blood must be prosecuted."
In New York, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had thanked Blunk for his work. The world body was working urgently to ensure that Blunk's reserve, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet of Switzerland, was available as soon as possible, spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
"The United Nations has constantly emphasized that the ECCC must be permitted to proceed with its work without interference from any entity, including the ... government of Cambodia, donor states or civil society," Del Buey told reporters.
The United Nations had "noted the reasons stated by Judge Blunk for his resignation" and would "continue to monitor the situation of the ECCC closely, including in consultation with" the Cambodian government, 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 Case 003 and 004 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.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Alan Raybould, Daniel Magnowski and Bill Trott)