The defense held that Rwandan genocide suspect Ignace Bagilishema, the first to be acquitted at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was more than innocent.
“We said it from the start: You are in the process of committing a judicial error,” his lawyer, Francois Roux, said in an interview Saturday.
The 2001 decision was not simply due to a lack of evidence but also the defense’s demonstration that Bagilishema had actually saved countless lives during the slaughter of 1994, said Roux, who, with Cambodian lawyer Kar Savuth, is now defending crimes-against-humanity suspect Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, before the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“Not only was the prosecutor unable to show his guilt but we, on the contrary, showed that he was not at all a genocidal killer,” Roux said.
The Bagilishema decision was the first among a string of successes for Roux at the Rwanda tribunal, where in 2002 he also got the charges against genocide suspect Leonidas Rusatira dropped and more recently negotiated plea bargains for two others, who then received sentences of under 10 years on reduced charges.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on Tuesday is to hear defense arguments that by detaining Duch without trial for eight years, six months and 10 days, Cambodian authorities have so seriously violated the former S-21 prison chief’s rights that he should be released pending trial.
The 56-year-old international defender, who has made a 35-year career of applying his ideals to legal strategy, said that his arrival in Cambodia was to bring his career to an unforeseen end.
Called to the bar in the southeastern French city of Montpellier as one of the youngest lawyers in France at 21, Roux began his career in 1972 defending conscientious objectors—activists protesting against the French defense industry. His clients included a certain Jose Bove, who would go on to greater fame as a radical farmer and presidential candidate; separatist militants in French Polynesia; and more recently anti-globalization activists, or alter-globalization activists as they prefer to be called, opposed to genetically-modified crops.
A committed pacifist, Roux said he feels most at ease defending the social causes he espouses. The suspects appearing before the ECCC are of an entirely different sort.
“I find it rather amusing, I’d say a glimpse of destiny, that, having spent my professional life defending civil disobedience, I should be confronted at the end of my career by servile obedience,” he said. “I believe in the need for international criminal justice. Just as there are prosecutors to accuse, judges to judge, lawyers are necessary to defend even people accused of the worst crimes.”
Roux was nevertheless guarded in speaking about his current client, who he says is eager to testify about what occurred during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
“It is not acceptable for someone to spend more than eight years in preventive detention without being tried,” Roux said of Duch’s detention, likely the longest of any crimes-against-humanity suspect. Roux declined, however, to say why the defense had not opted for the most aggressive option, seeking that the charges be dropped.
“I consider that we have taken the legal path best adapted to the situation. That is all I can tell you,” he said.
Roux said his defense strategy had long been informed by the principles of civil disobedience—in which activists deliberately break laws they feel are unjust—by causing him to argue that judges should refer to international law or other higher authorities in order to find in favor of his clients.
It was a serious crime under French law for conscientious objectors to sever ties with the military by sending their records of military service back to authorities. But it was also an expression of opinion, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. “I had more than 100 acquittals in the name of this text,” he said.