French lawyer for Khmer Rouge leader challenges tribunal, triggering new delay
The International Herald Tribune
The Associated Press
Published: April 24, 2008
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: A French lawyer known for his provocative style and infamous clients has taken center stage at the tribunal for Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge leaders, challenging the judges and adding to the woes of an already troubled court.
The aggressive stance taken by Jacques Verges at an appeal by former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan for release from pretrial detention augurs possible new hurdles for the tribunal, plagued over the past few years by political wrangling, corruption scandals and inadequate financing.
Conflict within the defense team surfaced Thursday when Khieu Samphan's other lawyer, Cambodian Say Bory, urged the Frenchman to tone down his aggressive style.
"If he doesn't, it could be the end for him ... and then what would happen to the case?" Say Bory said. "I want this to move forward."
The long-delayed U.N.-assisted tribunal seeks justice for the estimated 1.7 million people who died from starvation, disease, overwork and execution as a result of the communist Khmer Rouge's radical attempt to build a classless society when it held power in 1975-79. Khieu Samphan has denied responsibility for the atrocities.
But the spotlight in a pretrial hearing Wednesday was on the 83-year-old Verges, who triggered a delay with an outburst over the court's failure to translate thousands of pages of documents into French, one of the tribunal's three official languages, along with Khmer and English.
Verges is every bit as controversial as the people he defends, going back five decades to Algerian freedom fighters accused of terrorism. He was the subject of a feature-length documentary film last year, "Terror's Advocate."
His past clients include Nazi Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie and French collaborators, Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, various Palestinian hijackers, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and confessed serial killer Charles Sobhraj.
He has also looked after the interests of Saddam Hussein and several brutal African dictators, but has represented some true underdogs as well, mainly working-class citizens from France's ethnic minority communities.
Verges was born in northeastern Thailand to a French diplomat and a Vietnamese mother, a union said to have hurt his father's career. He has suggested his ethnic background has made him sympathetic to underdogs and outcasts.
Verges has said he likes to employ what he calls a "rupture" strategy, questioning the legitimacy of the court and accusing it of being a tool of injustice.
Verges and Khieu Samphan, 76, have said they have known each other since they both were active in left-wing student activities in Paris in the 1950s.
The tribunal has charged Khieu Samphan with crimes against humanity and war crimes, detaining him since last November.
Wednesday's closed-door hearing on Khieu Samphan's appeal was abruptly adjourned when Verges refused to continue.
"There is not one page of the case file against Mr. Khieu Samphan translated into French," Verges explained to reporters. "I should be capable of knowing what my client is blamed for."
The judges suggested Khieu Samphan might want to appoint a new lawyer to represent him — and then adjourned the hearing.
"I have been a lawyer for 50 years, it is the first time I have seen judges ask an accused to change his lawyer. This is a scandal!" Verges said. "This never happens except in dictatorships!"
The tribunal's judges said in a statement late Wednesday that they will "issue a warning" to Verges for courtroom behavior causing the hearing's postponement.
One of the Cambodian prosecutors, Chea Leang, acknowledged that the tribunal is facing difficulty translating documents for all its cases into its three official languages.
But she said Verges' refusal to participate in the hearing was "unreasonable" because the proceedings were not part of the actual trial.
The long-delayed tribunal is expected to hold its first trial later this year. Four other former senior Khmer Rouge are being held for trial.
Khieu Samphan has blamed the late Khmer Rouge chief Pol Pot for the group's policies.
Copyright © 2008 the International Herald Tribune All rights reserved