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Court lost in translation

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Visitors observing a session of the ECCC listen to the translated proceedings on headphones. Photograph: Eccc

Making good on threats of a walkout if their salaries remained unpaid, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Interpretation and Translation Unit became the first among the national staff to do so – opening yesterday’s hearing with an announcement that they were on strike.   

The interpreters, who like the rest of the court’s Cambodian staff have not been paid since November, underlined the importance of their work when they ceased translating between Khmer, English and French immediately after announcing their strike – refusing even to translate the response of Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn.  

“We won’t get back to work unless our salaries for the months of December 2012, January and February 2013 are fully paid to us,” a translator-turned-spokesman said. “Thank you, Mr President.”

With those words, the trial’s participants were left to fend for themselves, prompting Cambodian lawyers to turn to their international colleagues to interpret Nil Nonn’s words until judge Silvia Cartwright stated in English that the court would retire to consider the situation.  

Meetings between the approximately 30 interpreters and the court’s top administration through the rest of the day failed to reach a solution, meaning that further hearings would be delayed indefinitely, said Neth Pheaktra, press officer at the court.

The one exception was the court’s temporary resumption about an hour after the start of the strike to announce that, due to co-accused Ieng Sary’s hospitalisation that morning, the testimony of expert witness Philip Short, scheduled to begin yesterday, would be postponed – as it had been in October for the same reason.

This announcement and the court’s concluding statements were translated by two “emergency interpreters” not on strike, who had offered their services to translate the proceedings between English and Khmer for just 20 minutes.

“French speakers will have to confer with their colleagues,” Nonn said.

Before adjourning, the judges refused the by then moot request of co-accused Nuon Chea to be excused from the day’s hearings for health reasons, saying he was well enough to attend from the holding cell.

As to the health of his client, Ieng Sary, international co-counsel Michael Karnavas said he had “not been informed by the doctors what they may have concluded. He was rushed this morning to the hospital because he was vomiting and suffering from diarrhea.”

“Short is far too significant a witness to waive being present,” he added, but noted that the translators’ strike might very well make the issue irrelevant.

“The question remains, which other sections [of the staff] will be next,” Karnavas said. “Three months without pay is shocking.”

Without more funding, other staff from the court’s Cambodian side, all 270 of whom have not received their salaries for three months, would soon join the interpreters’ strike, warned court press officer Pheaktra. National staffers have begun appealing to the court’s international donor countries to speedily make good on disbursing the money they had pledged last month for the court’s 2013 budget and to finish transferring the funds they had promised in 2012.

“The national component of the ECCC needs $9.3 million to operate in 2013. Unlike previous years, the national side has received no new funding pledges from donor countries for 2013,” said Pheaktra, adding, however, that the national side still was expecting $2.5 million in pre-existing pledges from the Cambodian and German governments.

That still leaves the Cambodian side short about $7 million for the year, said Ek Tha, a spokesman for the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit.

Court monitors have urged the Cambodian government to take on more responsibility for funding the tribunal, but Tha said yesterday there is “no budget available to pay Cambodian staff, since [the government] has already contributed its maximum effort with the latest contribution of $1.8 million for this year.”

“We, the government, are optimistic that the international community will not let this court down,” he said. “We cannot let this crisis go on and on; that is why we keep seeking more financial support from new donors and friends of the ECCC.”

Meanwhile, Cambodians whom the court had bused in from the provinces as part of its outreach efforts were disconcerted by the strike.

“It’s a waste of my time at work, because they picked us up, but there is no hearing,” said Uy Vorn, a commune councilor in Kampong Speu’s Trapaing Kong commune. “Why don’t they solve the problem of staffs’ salaries? We still want the ECCC to continue.”

Loas Sath, a health worker from the same commune, agreed, saying, “I am very disappointed. This is my first time to attend an ECCC hearing, but as soon as it started, the Cambodian staff announced they don’t have salaries, so they cannot work.”

“The government and donors should solve the problem immediately,” he added.

Ly Sokheang, outreach co-ordinator for the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he had hoped today to give a tour of the court to a group of villagers who had spent the better part of a day travelling from Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Thom, but now they would have to return without seeing anything.

“This was their one chance; they don’t have money to come again on their own.”




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