The Khmer Rouge tribunal announced yesterday the appointment of a lawyer to represent some 2,000 victims participating in next year’s trial of four top Khmer Rouge leaders.
Elisabeth Simonneau Fort, an experienced French lawyer who has focused her practice on victims’ rights, will arrive in Cambodia in January to start work, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said yesterday.
Along with her Cambodian counterpart, Pich Ang, she will head a new unit of the tribunal known as the civil party lead co-lawyers section, which will become fully operational only when she arrives.
The appointment comes nine months after the lead co-lawyer position was created, and the court has faced months of calls from victim advocates and other civil party lawyers to expedite the hiring process. The job is immensely complicated, requiring coordinating legal strategies between ten groups of lawyers representing 2,124 victims who have suffered crimes ranging from forced marriage to genocide.
“This is great news,” said Terith Chy, head of the victim participation project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “Her presence will speed up the work a lot.”
Mr Olsen, the court spokesman, said it did not matter when a lead co-lawyer was appointed as long as it happened before the case was transferred to the court’s Trial Chamber.
“Formally, according to the rules, her responsibility starts on the first day that the Trial Chamber has been seized of the case,” he said. “We believe that this process is on track and we are confident that she will be able to perform her duties.”
But Mr Chy took issue with this perspective, pointing out that the lead co-lawyers had a great deal of preparatory work to do before the beginning of the trial phase.
“This person is supposed to be on the job anyway,” he said. “He or she appointed to this difficult job should have his or her hands on the job, the sooner the better. Compared to the work of the prosecution or the defense, the civil party lead co-lawyers’ job is going to be very challenging given the at least 2,100 civil parties and more than 10 teams of lawyers.”
German civil party lawyer Silke Studzinsky said a January start date might prove challenging given that trial proceedings are expected to begin in March.
“It’s a huge challenge, of course, and it will be a very short time to learn what is necessary to know about this complex case,” she said. “There are a lot of issues the lead co-lawyers have to deal with.”
But Mr Ang, the Cambodian lead co-lawyer, said it would not be a problem.
“She has a lot of experience already dealing with cases and the issues, so she can quickly control the situation and deal well with all civil parties and lawyers for civil parties,” he said.
He said that although his mandate had not technically started, he and the Cambodian side of the lead co-lawyers’ unit were still very busy preparing for trial and drafting administrative guidelines for the unit.