Former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan, anticipating a proposed tribunal on senior leaders who are accused of genocide, recently sought legal assistance from the Cambodian Defenders Project, Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said Wednesday.
Khieu Samphan walked into the offices of the legal aid group about three months ago after consulting with his advisers, Sok Sam Oeun said. The organization has yet to decide whether to grant him a lawyer.
Sok Sam Oeun listed several reasons why the organization has yet to grant him a lawyer.
First, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has not been set up. Second, he is not sure what role the Cambodian Defenders Project will play in the tribunal.
Since the aid group has lobbied in favor of the tribunal, Sok Sam Oeun is concerned about a conflict of interest. Money is also a factor for the cash-strapped organization, which has received funding from the US government.
“For normal cases, we have enough funds, but this case will be very expensive,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
Beyond all of the technical reasons for not granting Khieu Samphan a lawyer, Sok Sam Oeun said personal reasons existed as well. His father was among the more than 1 million who fell victim to the genocidal regime.
“What if I find out [Khieu Samphan] was the one who ordered the death of my father?” the human rights lawyer said. “What do you think? It might affect my independence.”
Nonetheless, Sok Sam Oeun said he has not ruled out providing assistance to Khieu Samphan. As a human rights activist, he said, he believes in the right to counsel and the presumption of innocence.
“If no one represents him, maybe we’ll consider it,” he said.
The UN or the government is responsible for giving Khieu Samphan legal assistance, he added.
Last June, the UN and the government signed an agreement after nearly five years of negotiations to open the tribunal with a mix of Cambodian and international judges. Last week, UN officials said that the tribunal could open a couple of months after its expected ratification by the National Assembly.
Khieu Samphan did not approach the other major legal defense organization here, Legal Aid of Cambodia, Director Ouk Vann Dath said Wednesday. The lawyer is not sure if his organization would take the former Khmer Rouge leader if he asked for assistance.
Khieu Samphan lives in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold Pailin along with Nuon Chea, known as Brother No 2 of the murderous Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot, the regime’s leader, died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan served as the Khmer Rouge’s president during the regime’s rule in the late 1970s. Though he could not be contacted for this article, Khieu Samphan wrote an open letter in 2001 saying he “did not know anything about” the killing during his tenure.
“I have never had an ambition to be a leader and I have never thought of aiming to kill anyone,” he wrote, adding: “My mistake was because I was so dumb and I was not close with the real situation.”