The president of the Cambodian Bar Association on Wednesday threatened to take legal action against anyone who participates in a five-day training course on international criminal law that is being offered by the Defense Office of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and the International Bar Association.
“We are being violated by the foreign lawyers,” Cambodian Bar Association President Ky Tech said in an interview.
He said the legal training violated Cambodian law and he described Cambodian lawyers who have cooperated with foreigners in setting up the training as “extremists.”
“We will have measures against lawyers who have conspired to violate the law,” Ky Tech warned.
His remarks mark an escalation of a growing turf war between the Cambodian Bar Association and the Defense Office of the ECCC.
The virulence of the debate has caught the attention of the US government, which has not yet funded the tribunal but may do so. The US Congress has been reluctant to allow funding for the tribunal, on the grounds that it might not measure up to international standards of justice.
“We have concerns about the virulence of some of the comments by the Cambodian Bar Association,” US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said Wednesday.
“We know the bar president has connections to the government,” Mussomeli said. “It’s worrying since he has spoken in such a strident manner. As we work to find ways to fund directly the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, these sort of comments are not helpful.”
In 2004, the Cambodian Bar Association swore in Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cabinet Minister Sok An, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha as members of the bar, despite questions about their legal qualifications. The following day, Hun Sen inaugurated the bar’s new office, which was reportedly a donation from the Council of Ministers.
Peter Foster, public affairs officer at the ECCC, said the exact relationship between the bar and the principle defender’s office, including issues relevant to the now-controversial training session, were being discussed at the plenary session of the ECCC. The session was convened Monday to ratify the court’s internal rules.
Those rules govern the roles of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, suspects and witnesses appearing in the trials. The bar association, he added, has been invited back to the plenary session today for continued discussion. He declined to comment further on the controversy.
Rupert Skilbeck, the principal defender at the Defense Office of the ECCC, could not be reached for comment.
Ky Tech said that before attending the international criminal law training session, which is scheduled to run from Nov 27 to Dec 1, Cambodian lawyers should consider its legality.
“The bar association must select and review the programs and subjects for every legal training to avoid problems with politics and to avoid the violation of the bar association’s independence,” Ky Tech maintained. He also said that it would be up to the 19 members of the bar’s governing council to decide on what future legal sanction might be taken against participants and organizers of the training course.
In a letter to Mark Ellis, the executive director of the International Bar Association—an organization of 30,000 lawyers and over 195 bar associations and law societies—that was released Wednesday, Ly Tayseng, the bar association’s secretary-general, said that though the local bar did not intend to prevent the training, it was concerned that the program was not in compliance with Cambodian law.
The law, he said, gives the bar council the “full and exclusive authority to approve both initial and continuing training of Cambodian lawyers within the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Mark Ellis, who is based in London, could not be reached for comment. The Cambodian Bar Association has been a member of the International Bar Association since 2004, according to Ly Tayseng.
Lawyer Suon Visal, who won the presidency of the Cambodian Bar Association two years ago but was prevented from taking office, said he has been trying to act as a negotiator between the ECCC and the bar.
“The defense office is important for helping the tribunal and helping train our Cambodian lawyers,” he said.
Ky Tech acknowledged that he had met with Suon Visal but said that he did not consider him a negotiator.
On Monday, Ky Tech and three representatives of NGOs addressed the plenary session of the ECCC for 10 minutes each. Their presentations were followed by a question and answer session that lasted about 30 minutes, according to people who attended the meeting.
Ky Tech’s comments and the questions he raised about the roles of the Cambodian Bar Association and the ECCC’s defense were the most controversial points in what was a largely pro forma meeting, one person who attended the meeting said on condition of anonymity.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, was one of a number of observers present Monday. He said that he had the impression that the bar misunderstands the role of the defense office and might fear that it was trying to become a new de facto bar association.
“It’s very important for the ECCC or the UN to talk with the government to make clear the role of the defense unit,” he said. “Otherwise it can delay the process.”
Ky Tech said he was not trying to obstruct the tribunal.
But the clock is already ticking for the court.
In his remarks at the opening of the plenary session, Sean Visoth, the ECCC’s director of administration, urged the judges to adopt the internal rules by Saturday, as planned.
The controversy with the bar association is just one of the issues before the plenary session this week. A review of six sets of comments on the rules, which represent the views of more than two dozen NGOs, revealed broad concern with witness protection, public outreach, victims’ rights and compensation, and the possibility that trials in absentia might be allowed.
“All the members of the plenary were impressed with the hard work and careful thought that went into the comments submitted,” Foster said. “The NGOs’ submissions are serving as a valuable resource,” he added.
The plenary session of the ECCC is scheduled to announce the results of its deliberations on Saturday.