The impasse at the Khmer Rouge tribunal over fees for foreign lawyers is exclusively the fault of the Cambodian Bar Association and is threatening to derail the court, a coalition of rights groups said Wednesday.
The tribunal’s international judges warned Tuesday that the bar could be excluded from the process of organizing the participation of foreign lawyers at the court if it did not lower the proposed fees, which amount to $4,900 for the first year of practice at the court.
High fees could shrink the pool of defense lawyers willing to participate in the court, which would potentially violate the rights of the accused to a fair trial, the international judges said. A plenary session of judges tentatively scheduled for April 30 to approve the court’s draft internal rules could not be called due to the disagreement, the judges said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, which is comprised of 23 human rights groups, said these developments were the result of the bar’s intransigence.
“[B]ecause of the failure of the [bar] to compromise on this issue of fees, the plenary session scheduled for the end of this month will not be convened,” CHRAC said in statement.
“CHRAC squarely places the onus of resolving this issue of fees on the shoulders of the [bar] and holds it accountable for the inability of the [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia] to adopt internal rules,” the statement added.
Bar President Ky Tech and Secretary-General Ly Tayseng could not be reached for comment Wednesday. However, Ky Tech said Tuesday that his position on the fees was final.
“I am still keeping my stance of independence and cannot be instructed by the international judges,” he said.
CHRAC said that should the tribunal collapse due to the fees deadlock, the government would also be responsible.
“CHRAC holds the Royal Government of Cambodia responsible should this ECCC not move forward or move forward but [fail] to administer proper justice for the Cambodian people,” the statement said. “We don’t want to have a parody of justice. We don’t want the memory of the dead to be ridiculed,” it added.
Attempts to contact government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on Wednesday were unsuccessful. However, the CPP’s National Assembly Second Vice President Nguon Nhel said the government wants the tribunal to be a success.
“This is the conscience of the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said. “The trials of the people who committed genocide must exist.”
Critical comments like those made by CHRAC are par for the course, he added.
“There are always descriptions of this or that,” Nguon Nhel said. “There must be a tribunal of the Khmer Rouge people.”
ECCC Co-Investigating Judge Marcel Lemonde declined comment on CHRAC’s statement but said that despite the fee dispute, there was no acrimony among Cambodians and internationals working at the court.
“Personal relations have always been good. This is not a personal problem,” he said. “I’d say there’s an atmosphere of anticipation. We’d really like to get to work.”
If the international judges do propose excluding the bar later this month and if this proposal is then rejected by the Cambodian side, the disagreement may prove fatal to the court, he said.
“I am afraid of this because I don’t see too many other possibilities,” he said, adding that he was “neither optimistic nor pessimistic” about the outcome.
Co-Investigating Judge You Bun Leng said the CHRAC statement could make the bar less likely to compromise.
“If they use pressuring language, it could be that those NGOs aren’t helping. It could be an obstacle to the justice they want to see move forward,” he said, adding that he believed a solution would be reached.
Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said the NGOs were siding with a necessary ultimatum from the international judges.
“The power and balance in negotiating has been on the Cambodian side because of the backing of the government,” she said.
“The internationals have arrived at a very difficult point. They could either continue to play this game and suspend their beliefs and their ethics or they could play hardball.”