Lawyers for war crimes suspect Khieu Samphan on Thursday publicly hammered the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s lack of translated documentation, widely perceived as one of the court’s most serious weaknesses, which they said should result in their client’s unconditional release.
In a thundering address following a hearing at the tribunal on the translation issue, Khieu Samphan’s French defender Jacques Verges also challenged a foreign prosecutor to a debate on the issue of translations, but left with his Cambodian colleague Sa Sovan after both were confronted by distraught victims of the regime who are parties to the trials, at least one of whom had to be physically restrained.
Prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal argued on Thursday that Khieu Samphan’s defense was well informed of the contents of the evidentiary documents and had no right to expect that every document would be translated into French.
Prosecutors also said that in June an order was issued that limited the types of documents that defendants may have translated, and that order was not subject to appeal.
Since refusing to allow Khieu Samphan, 77, to be questioned in February, the defense has focused entirely on the issue of French translation, which the lawyers say has denied their client an effective defense and nullifies his prosecution by the tribunal.
Verges was warned by the court in April that he risked removal after he refused to participate in a bail hearing for Khieu Samphan, citing the lack of French-language translations. During that hearing, judges also told Khieu Samphan that he had the right to choose a new lawyer if Verges would not argue on his behalf.
Verges told the Pre-Trial Chamber on Thursday that he did not fear sanction from them.
“I have consulted in Paris the annals of French justice. Never in 15 centuries has a court asked an accused to change lawyers,” Verges told the courtroom.
“You have done so and I think this shall render immortal the memory of this tribunal,” he said.
Verges also claimed that only 2.5 percent of some 60,000 pages of Khmer Rouge tribunal evidence is available in French, and he cited remarks made in 2004 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who he said had claimed that the Khmer Rouge trials might have to wait until evidence was translated.
“The Secretary-General has said that the judicial investigation cannot fully begin before the translations,” Verges continued.
“Perhaps you may ask the United Nations to change secretary-general. So much the better. I would be in good company,” he added.
Noting a recent $1-million contribution in renewed French support for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Verges said the court had preferred to use that money to conduct public outreach efforts to promote the court, such as translating posters for the tribunal and not evidence.
“As a defense lawyer, as a Frenchman appearing before this court, I have the right to ask: what have you done with this money? Verges asked.
“Five million dollars and you can’t translate 60,000 pages? And yet the defense counsel is being asked to consent to a violation of his rights,” Verges said.
Tribunal Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang said the translation demands of the defense were outside their rights and international jurisprudence.
“Not one decision has upheld that a fair and expeditious trial cannot be held until all the documents are translated into the language of the counsel,” she said.
International Deputy Co-Prosecutor William Smith added that the defense have had access in French, English and Khmer to the co-prosecutors’ introductory allegations, witness lists, document annexes, as well as extensive analysis and cataloguing of evidence.
Of the 2,683 separate documents in question, 85 percent have been translated into languages legible to at least one defense lawyer, he said.
Using audiovisual aides, Smith also showed that Verges’ registration at the Paris Bar lists English as a working language and exhibited video of a 1998 press conference at which Khieu Samphan spoke English, though no sound was broadcast.
“One may infer from this that he speaks English like and Oxford student but that’s a somewhat exaggerated interpretation,” Verges said.
Khieu Samphan rose at the end of the hearing to say he was bemused at the amount of paper seeming to hold him responsible for atrocities during the Khmer Rouge years, and that his lawyers needed to be able to read them.
“It is very clear that they need the translation of the documents in order that they can understand the case before us,” Khieu Samphan told the court.
“I have not recovered. I am still sick and I cannot speak clearly and my thought process is not very clear as well. So if my two defense lawyers have the opportunity to understand the documents very well, then I will have all the confidence in them, and I believe that if they have the opportunity to defend me then I would not be placed in provisional detention up to today,” he added.
In a raucous press conference later, Verges, banged on a table and shouted, denouncing any possibility of sanctions against him—which he alone appeared to have discussed in Thursday’s hearing.
“I defy the prosecution to pursue me here,” he told reporters. “It would nevertheless be a kind of glory. Let them pursue me and I shall return to Paris and they’ll give me a triumph,” he said. “As if I would bend before such a threat.”
In a statement read out before reporters, a group of 10 victims of the regime who are civil parties and applicant civil parties in the case said delays in the court proceedings, insufficient resources and alleged corruption were testing their faith in the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Many wept as they spoke and expressed anger at Khieu Samphan’s defense tactic, and Verges in particular.
“I would like to appeal to the court to not let that lawyer be the lawyer of Khieu Samphan,” said Suth Ny, a 51-year-old civil party applicant from Kompong Speu province.
“If so, I will lose all my belief and faith in the tribunal,” she said.