In threatening legal action against a defense team, Cambodian judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal this month risked jeopardizing the court’s fairness and its appearance of legitimacy, the interim head of the court’s defense office said Friday.
In a statement issued Jan 9, all 15 of the tribunal’s Cambodian judges threatened three foreign lawyers representing Brother Number 2 Nuon Chea with unspecified legal action after they lodged a criminal complaint at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court seeking an investigation of longstanding kickback allegations at the tribunal.
The complaint to the municipal court named for investigation Cabinet Minister Sok An, tribunal Director of Administration Sean Visoth and the court’s former Personnel Chief Keo Thyvuth.
The defense lawyers, however, did not mention judges specifically, in either their complaint or statements to the press who gathered at the municipal courthouse last week to report on the process.
Acting head of the tribunal’s defense support section Richard Rogers said Friday that the judges’ reaction may give the impression that the court is reluctant to resolve the kickbacks matter, and could frighten potential defense witnesses.
“If they now see that the ECCC judges, who are meant to be the neutral guardians of fairness, are threatening to take legal action against defense lawyers, they may think twice before coming forward for fear that legal action will be initiated against them,” Rogers said in an interview.
Citing a forthcoming study by the Human Rights Center at the US’ University of California, Berkeley, Rogers said a recent nationwide poll of 1,000 Cambodian adults had found that 23 percent view the court as corrupt and a third say judges will not be fair.
“This again supports the view of many that these allegations need to be properly addressed in a transparent manner if this court is to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Cambodian public,” he said.
“The defense need to know the extent of the corruption, if any, in order to determine whether it affects their client’s fair trial rights,” he added.
ECCC Co-Investigating Judge You Bunleng on Friday declined to specify what sort of legal recourse, whether contempt proceedings, a defamation lawsuit or other legal action, the judges may pursue against the foreign lawyers who lodged the complaint.
“This affects the dignity and reputation of the judges,” You Bunleng said, maintaining that the lawyers had implicated judges in their statements to the media.
“They walked around broadcasting [this],” he said.
“They should work hard to find evidence to defend their case,” he said, adding that the Jan 9 joint statement by the ECCC’s judges was to protect their reputations during the municipal court’s investigation.
On Wednesday, the tribunal’s co-investigating judges refused to enter the Nuon Chea team’s municipal court complaint into evidence at the tribunal, saying it was unrelated to continuing investigations of Khmer Rouge crimes.
The judges ruled, in their response to the lawyers who had asked for it to be included, that the municipal complaint “falls completely outside the factual situation [and] and the object of the current judicial investigation” and that “it is not, thus, conducive to ascertaining those facts.”