How a man goes from fighting the Khmer Rouge from a Thai pagoda to representing one of the movement’s top leaders is just one of the ironies of modern Cambodian history.
It is also the story of Son Arun, 60, Nuon Chea’s lawyer, who lost a brother and sister and more than 30 members of his extended family to the Khmer Rouge.
“We have to find out who is responsible for killing people,” Son Arun said. “That’s my job right now. I have to do a lot of research. Who are the top killers?”
Son Arun said Monday that he initially planned, along with French attorney Jacques Verges, to represent former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, his old math teacher, before the Khmer Rouge tribunal, but when the call to represent Nuon Chea came last Wednesday, Son Arun said yes.
Nuon Chea selected Son Arun on the recommendation of a member of his family, a source close to the family said.
It’s unlikely Son Arun will be able to represent both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Rupert Skilbeck, the principal defender at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, said by e-mail Monday that the ECCC allows defense lawyers to represent more than one client if there are no conflicts of interest.
“In reality this means that lawyers are not likely to represent more than one accused before the ECCC,” he wrote.
Son Arun said he had yet to develop a defense strategy for Nuon Chea, and was, for the moment, focusing on document research.
He said he has been in touch with Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has provided tribunal prosecutors with reams of historical evidence. He also said that his client has a long record of fighting injustice on behalf of the Cambodian people.
“Mr Nuon Chea is different from other people,” Son Arun said.
“He never socializes like you and myself. He always thinks about nationalism, to help people. He’s living in the jungle to fight the colonists. He thinks about nationalism. He doesn’t like capitalism, imperialists.”
Son Arun said he fled Cambodia in 1975 following the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, spending a few months with a resistance group in Thailand’s Trat province, before going to the US, where he remained until 1989. After his return to Cambodia, he became an attorney for Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Son Arun also said that he last spoke with Khieu Samphan on the day of Nuon Chea’s arrest.
“He’s ready,” he said of Khieu Samphan.
“He’s glad to come to the court to tell Cambodian people the true history,” he added.
The question of establishing individual responsibility will likely loom large for the defense at the ECCC.
Some in Cambodia believe that the Khmer Rouge killing machine was fairly decentralized, with zealous regional commanders overreaching the commands of their superiors.
Already, Khmer Rouge “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea has told court officials that he did not have direct contact with regional bases.
“[W]e were not aware of what was happening there,” Nuon Chea said, according to his initial detention order, released Friday.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)