PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Lawyers for the second-in-command of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge regime on Monday filed a lawsuit against the prime minister and top government officials for perceived interference in a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal.
The filing of the lawsuit with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was the latest twist in a multi-million dollar tribunal fraught with controversy since it was set up seven years ago to try those "most responsible" for the brutal deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" era from 1975-1979.
The legal team of Nuon Chea, 85, better known as "brother number two", said Prime Minister Hun Sen and top officials had unlawfully tried to block certain witnesses from testifying and sought to prevent further cases from going to court.
In a statement, Nuon Chea's lawyers accused the ministers of having a "common criminal plan" that amounted to interfering with justice and the defendants' rights to a fair trial.
The court is expected to have spent about $150 million by the end of the year and has 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 centre in Phnom Penh.
German judge Siegfried Blunk resigned on Oct. 9 because of what he said was interference by Hun Sen, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in their public opposition to the court pursuing further cases.
The United Nations Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs, Patricia O'Brien, visited Cambodia last week and urged the government to "refrain from interfering in any way whatsoever with the judicial process".
Government spokesman Keo Remy said Blunk's resignation was the result of pressure by certain Western media and rights groups and said his comments were "baseless and artificial".
The current trial, known as 002, involves Nuon Chea, the right-hand man to the "killing fields" architect, Pol Pot, former President Khieu Samphan, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was social affairs minister.
Opening statements in their trial on charges that include war crimes and crimes against humanity will be heard on Nov. 21. All are elderly and in poor health and many Cambodians believe they will die before a verdict is reached.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Petty)