Hundreds assigned counsel only after the deadline to make their case
The Khmer Rouge tribunal last week assigned lawyers to nearly 800 people who say they were victimized by the Pol Pot regime, more than a month after a deadline to show proof of their claims of suffering.
Among the most remote and least well informed of the 4,000 people who have applied to become civil parties in the coming trials of senior regime leaders, these applicants are now at a distinct disadvantage, more likely than others to be rejected for lack of evidence, according to civil party lawyers.
Just under 600 of these applicants are now represented by only three lawyers who were appointed by the court on Aug 2, and who filed a formal request with the court’s co-investigating judges on Monday to extend the deadline for their new clients.
“We are writing to you to request an extraordinary period of time for gathering supplementary information for our new clients on the grounds of the procedural fairness and the rights of participation of our clients,” wrote court-appointed lawyers Chet Vanly, Pich Ang and Ven Pov.
The trio already represented 692 applicants, and the new influx of clients puts their caseload at a mountainous 1,261 people, more than a quarter of all those who have applied.
When indictments are handed down next month, the court’s co-investigating judges will determine whether each of the nearly 4,000 victims hoping to participate in the coming trials has provided enough documentary evidence to be recognized.
At last month’s verdict in the trial of S-21 Chairman Kaing Guek Eav, 24 civil parties were excluded for lack of evidence. The number of exclusions in September is likely to be far higher, given the size of the coming trials.
Mr Ang, one of the court-appointed lawyers, said yesterday that his 569 new clients were already among the least educated, most vulnerable civil party applicants.
“Looking into their conditions, they would face more risk [of rejection] rather than acceptance, [because] they did not meet with any lawyer, they did not have enough information, they might not fall within the scope,” he said.
Lars Olsen, a legal affairs spokesman for the court, said the assignment of lawyers had been slow because of the sheer number of victims hoping to participate in the second case.
“Before they can be assigned a lawyer, they have to be processed and put on the case file, and obviously that takes time with 4,000 applications,” Mr Olsen said.
“The important thing here is that…the most important information was supposed to be submitted at the deadline for applications, at the end of January,” he added. “No one had lawyers when they actually filed an application.”
But in their letter, the three lawyers complained that initial victim information forms are often inaccurate or incomplete because they were filled out by non-lawyers.
“Furthermore,” they wrote, “given the fact that most of the victim information forms were filled out when the scope of the investigation was not yet public, many of the crimes that are being investigated by your office were not asked about/explained to the civil party applicants, including forced marriage….”
The lawyers also claimed that investigating judges said in April that all civil party applicants would be assigned to lawyers by June 1, a month before the June 30 deadline.
On that date, Helen Jarvis, the victims support section’s chief, and Neou Kassie, its outreach coordinator, left their positions.
Mr Olsen said the investigating judges had received the lawyers’ request and would respond to it soon.
Silke Studzinsky, who represents around 530 civil party applicants in Case 002, said she and four co-lawyers had spent more than three months before the deadline working nonstop to collect extra information from their clients.
“These poor people, their lawyers do not have time to collect additional information, and it is often important and necessary to do so,” she said.
“At this late stage, it is only representation but not really in a meaningful way.”
Sok Leang, outreach manager at the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, said that many of the civil party applicants he works with had expressed concern about their lack of representation.
“I know they have been working very hard to give legal representation to civil parties, but the problem is that it just delays and delays and people don’t know about the status of their applications or their legal representation,” he said.
“People keep asking us about whether they have a lawyer…and we just have to tell them that it’s in the process. We’re doing a lot of expectation management and frustration management right now.”