Another High-Level Departure at Troubled Victims Unit
More than seven months ago, the Khmer Rouge tribunal created two new positions for a Cambodian and a foreign lawyer to oversee the legal representation of over 2,000 victims in the court’s second case.
But today the job of international lead counsel remains unfilled even as it grows more complex by the day, sparking concerns among many victims’ advocates.
“This role of the civil party co-lead lawyer is a huge role, and I just feel that the international co-lead lawyer should have been appointed earlier to work in a more effective manner,” said Terith Chy, head of the victim participation project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“The defense needs only to defend one accused, but the civil party co-lead lawyer needs to coordinate all these teams of lawyers and thousands of victims, I don’t know how many thousands of pages of evidence—this role is very important and very complicated compared to the others.”
Asked yesterday whether an international lead lawyer had been appointed yet, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said only: “It’s in the process.”
After determining that victim participation in last year’s trial of Kaing Guek Eav was disorganized and time-consuming, judges in February replaced the previous system, in which civil party lawyers were all granted the right to speak in court, with the lead co-lawyer system.
The two lawyers, one Cambodian and one foreign, will represent the interests of all 2,123 civil parties in court, coordinating legal strategies between groups of victims and their personal lawyers who have suffered from crimes ranging from forced marriage to genocide.
A trial in the court’s second and vastly more complicated case is expected to begin early next year.
Long Panhavuth, program officer at the court watchdog Cambodia Justice Initiative, called on the tribunal to “organize its priorities” and hire an international civil party lawyer immediately.
“If they would not like to risk civil party participation,” he said yesterday, “they need to work now to get the international civil party lead co-lawyer on board as soon as possible, even changing the offer if necessary to attract a high caliber of candidate.”
Mr Panhavuth said he believed the job had already been declined by one candidate, possibly because the offered salary was too low.
Kim Mengkhy, a Cambodian civil party lawyer, said the lack of an international lead counsel had already caused some problems for him and his colleagues.
“For the civil party lawyers, if there is no international co-lawyer it will make great difficulties, because the international lawyer has more tactics,” he said.
Nearly three weeks after Cambodian co-lead lawyer Pich Ang took up his duties, Mr Mengkhy said the system was running smoothly, if quietly.
“I have been working and cooperating with [Mr Ang] about victims’ compensation…[but] there is no significant work yet because it’s just the beginning,” he said.
However, another lawyer, Hong Kimsuon, gave the system mixed reviews, complaining that Mr Ang had not yet reached out to victims and their lawyers.
“It is not going smoothly,” he said. “There are no significant tasks nor a planning schedule for future work.”
Mr Ang cautioned that getting results takes time.
“If they want to see fruitful work, we cannot do it within a very short time.”
Also yesterday, the tribunal confirmed that Paul Oertly, the deputy head of the court’s troubled victims unit, left his job last week. His replacement has not yet been chosen, court spokesman Mr Olsen said.
Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the DC-Cam, said this departure was a concern in light of the high turnover at the unit, which has shuffled through three directors in little more than a year.
“It’s not clear if there’s any force driving the [unit’s] mandate and if there’s anybody there with an active interest in the issues the court’s supposed to be dealing with,” she said.