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‘Intimidation’ thins striker ranks

More than a week after the first-ever walkout occurred at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, strikers are describing an increasingly hostile environment at the court — one in which threats of lost jobs and reduced salary, not to mention more subtle intimidation tactics, have become the norm.

One striking staffer said pressure was to blame for the thinning ranks of the protesters, whose numbers have dropped from more than 30 at the beginning of last week to about a dozen.

Most recently, one of the transcribers refusing to work at the tribunal said his job had been threatened in a Tuesday meeting with the Court Management Section after he released a statement about the strike to the media.

“They said I had abused the working conditions by leaking information, and we would not be paid during the period of the boycott, and in a letter, they said I would be fired,” the transcriber, who asked to be identified as Dara, said.

Earlier that morning, Dara was cc’ed on an email sent by Kong Sophy, chief of the Court Management Section, to a number of recipients.

Without addressing Dara by name, the email suggested he should think about employment elsewhere.  

“The writer shall be ended the contract as the transcriber and find a new job as analyst or journalist based on the quality of this article. I think this article was drafted by someone  . . . [who] asked him to put his name [on it].

“He is [being] used by someone and takes [a] risk himself. He forgets about his job description at the moment.”

Sophy did not immediately respond to a phone call or emails yesterday asking about allegations of threats. Neth Pheaktra, the court spokesman for the national side, also did not return requests for comment by press time.

Two hundred and seventy people — virtually all the Cambodian employees of the court — have gone without pay for three months. The majority, though, have not joined the walkout that the almost 30 members of the Interpretation and Translation Unit began on March 4.

The eight-member transcription unit also stopped working that day, though they did not announce it publicly until Monday.

Most of the interpreters returned to work this week, but about 15 staffers are still taking part in the boycott.

One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a recent interview there had been a toxic atmosphere even before the strike.

In February, during a botched strike attempt, an employee who had regularly sided with the administration ripped up the walkout petit-ion and stuffed the pieces in a trash can.

When members of the Interpretation and Translation Unit finally went on strike on March 4, they did so in the face of similarly intimidating pressure.

Sophy had carpeted them in a meeting that afternoon, according to a staffer who was present.

The staffer said everyone had been told the boycott was illegal, and that salaries for the month of March would be deducted for every day the strike continued.

 “Also, it would not be guaranteed that we would be offered our salaries for the months of January and February even when the funds were available, if we were still staging the boycott,” the staffer said, and that “possibly, the UN would be looking to find some replacements.

“If they could be found, we might be dismissed.” The staf-fer attributed these warnings, and others, to the decision by some to return to work.

Although it may seem the strikers, with their dwindling numbers, are losing their fight, they appear to be winning supporters from the international side of the court, which had remained silent for the past week.

Lawyers for civil parties and the defence, as well as the Asia-Pacific regional chapter of the International Assoc-iation of Conference Interpreters, have issued statements    of support.

“In our capacity as lawyers, we are particularly aware of the importance of respecting ECCC staff members’ fundamental rights, including the right to regular payment of their wages,” read part of the statement released yesterday and signed by lawyers for the three senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial in the tribunal’s second case, and the defence team involved in the fourth case, which is still in the investigation phase.

“This is a basic right that must be respected, and it would be all the more shocking to see this right flouted by a tribunal assisted by the UN, whose vocation is to serve as an example.”  

Under the agreement that created the tribunal, the Cambodian government is responsible for paying the national side of the court.

But the national budget for 2013 is millions of dollars short, and the government has insisted it is unable to cover the shortfall. Instead, it has called for foreign donors to kick in the missing funds.

The court administration has not voiced a clear solution for the walkout, although staff say they will return to work if December salaries are paid.

A meeting is scheduled today at the court “regarding salary”, according to an email obtained by the Post.

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