Defense Lawyer’s Jibes at Judge Get Personal in Interview

Victor Koppe, Nuon Chea’s international defense lawyer, rarely misses an opportunity to tell the judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal what he really thinks.

During a documentary hearing in August, Mr. Koppe called proceedings a “farce” and walked out of the courtroom. The following day, the Dutch lawyer went further, ac­cusing Judge Jean-Marc La­vergne of making “cowardly decisions” and lacking “judicial integrity.” (He was referred to the Amster­dam Bar Association as a result.)

Victor Koppe sits outside his home in Phnom Penh last month. (John Vink)
Victor Koppe sits outside his home in Phnom Penh last month. (John Vink)

And in a forthcoming interview in the Mekong Review, a new quarterly literary journal, he takes his critique of Judge Lavergne to the next level.

“I have strong professional contempt for the French judge [Jean-Marc Lavergne] particularly. If that is going too far, then so be it,” Mr. Koppe tells the journal’s editor, Minh Bui Jones.

Asked whether he has something against the judge, he replies, “Yes.”

“Because he’s French?” Mr. Bui Jones asks.

“[Laughs] No, not because he’s French,” the lawyer responds. “No, I like French people. It would be too easy. He does everything he can to prevent me asking questions. He is on an active path to try and prevent [Nuon Chea’s] story be­ing told.”

Later in the interview, when asked why he nearly quit his job in No­vember, Mr. Koppe plunges in­to a full-on personal attack on Judge Lavergne.

“If you’re in that courtroom day in day out, you know…it’s unbearable, day in day out, to be faced with that French judge, who is the ultimate combination of bias, in­competence and dumbness. Peo­ple don’t understand how hard that is,” he says.

Asked about Mr. Koppe’s comments, tribunal analysts said this week that while the lawyer had the right to question the court’s fairness, personal attacks were a step too far.

“I would say that actually, in a fair tri­al, it is important that a defense lawyer is able to freely exercise his defense. But I would say that the personal attack on the judge in particular is beyond the boundaries of what is called fair-trial rights,” said Panhavuth Long, a court monitor for the Cambodian Justice Initiative.

Mr. Long said the invectives were likely part of a wider strategy by Mr. Koppe.

“I think it is to gain attention. And secondly, he would like to make the judges lose their temper and if they discipline him, he can delay the proceedings,” he said.

John Ciorciari, an American scho­l­­ar who has written extensively about the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said Mr. Koppe’s comments could constitute contempt of court, but speculated that the lawyer was at­tempting to make a point about the court’s handling of his client’s case.

“Accusing Lavergne of ‘dumbness’ is hardly professional, but that may be precisely the point—Koppe argues that the trial is a three-ring circus, and his own conduct may contribute to that impression,” he said.

Asked to respond to the criticism on Wednesday, Mr. Koppe said only: “I really do not feel the need to react to these people.”

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