By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian staff at a Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal have gone two months without pay and are threatening a walkout amid a deepening funding crisis at a court already bogged down by resignations and the ill health of its elderly defendants.
Some 270 Cambodians have not been paid since November and are working at the U.N.-backed court without contracts, caught up in a standoff between donors and a government criticized for its lack of support for hearings into one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
Between 1.7 and 2.2 million people, almost a quarter of Cambodia's population, died between 1975 and 1979 under the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime.
Pol Pot, the architect of the "Year Zero" revolution, died in 1998, but his sidekicks are now on trial for murder and crimes against humanity, among a litany of charges.
"They gave us some information about our salaries but it didn't really explain anything," said one staff member, declining to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media, referring to the court.
"We are angry and discouraged," he told Reuters, adding that he and many of his colleagues planned to walk out if they were not paid within the next two weeks.
The funding dispute puts the spotlight on the commitment of the government, which has been accused of interfering behind the scenes to put the brakes on the court and limit the scope of investigations that could implicate powerful political figures.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla who defected to the regime's eventual conquerors, Vietnam, has said he would "not allow" any new indictments and would be happy if the United Nations packed up and left.
Following months of appeals, the international side of the court has managed to secure enough funding to keep its side going, but the problems do not stop at finances.
Two international investigating judges quit in the space of six months in 2011 and 2012 over what they said was political interference, and many Cambodians fear the three remaining defendants in the court's second case - "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and ex-president Khieu Samphan - may not live to hear a verdict.
The three former Khmer Rouge leaders have all denied responsibility for the mass deaths during their rule.
"NOT DYING SOON"
All three are in their 80s and have been in hospital suffering from fatigue and dizziness in the past month. Nuon Chea was discharged on Thursday, even though his family was convinced he was "approaching death", according to his co-counsel, Victor Koppe.
Court spokesman Lars Olsen dismissed fears of Nuon Chea's imminent death: "He's not dying soon."
A fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, Pol Pot's sister-in-law, was declared unfit for trial last year because she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Since the court was set up in 2005 with the aim of trying "those most responsible" for the bloodshed, it has delivered only one verdict, life imprisonment for Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a converted Phnom Penh school where as many as 14,000 people may have been executed.
Under an agreement with the United Nations establishing the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, as the hybrid U.N.-Cambodian tribunal is known, the government has an obligation to fund the Cambodian side.
It has paid $1.8 million a year in general costs for utilities, security, healthcare and transport, as well as the courthouse, which it owns.
The government has used outside contributions to pay the estimated $9.3 million a year wage bill and sources close to the issue say big foreign donors like Japan are overstretched and want Cambodia to come up with more cash.
Staff, however, do not see that happening.
"The government won't pay these salaries. They just want this court to shut down," a staff member said. "By creating this situation, they just want to embarrass the U.N."
Government spokesman Ek Tha said Cambodia was appealing to outside donors for help.
"Its all about interpretation," Ek Tha said. "The U.N. receives money from donors to pay their staff, Cambodia is the same."
Critics have questioned Cambodia's commitment to attracting those funds and insiders with knowledge of the issue say some donors are steering clear because they fear they would anger the government if their money was used in cases beyond the one being heard.
Heather Ryan, a court monitor for advocacy group Open Society Justice Initiative, said the salary wrangle could be very damaging if it went on any longer.
"The government of Cambodia and the donors should somehow agree on how to get Cambodian staff paid because they are critical to the everyday working of the court," Ryan said.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)