A U.N. judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal has issued a confidential order to remove the team of lawyers representing former Khmer Rouge navy chief Meas Muth, who is under investigation for war crimes in a case staunchly opposed by the Cambodian government.
The lawyers, Michael Karnavas and Ang Udom, were appointed to defend Meas Muth in December 2012 at the suspect’s request. They also represented former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary for over five years, before his death in March 2013 in the midst of his own crimes against humanity trial.
Investigating Judge Mark Harmon said in his decision, dated January 10, that the lawyers’ work on Ieng Sary’s case and their defense of Meas Muth could give rise to conflicts of interest, even after Ieng Sary’s death, and ordered the court to appoint new defense lawyers in their place.
Judge Harmon said there was evidence that Ieng Sary acted as a superior to Meas Muth and that the facts in their cases were closely interrelated. Although Meas Muth was a military official who reported largely to the Khmer Rouge defense minister, he did file at least one secret report directly to Ieng Sary, according to the allegations against him.
The judge also said that Mr. Karnavas and Mr. Udom might be less zealous in their defense of Meas Muth due to their lingering loyalty to Ieng Sary and their commitment to a defense strategy that sought to downplay his decision-making power and importance within the regime.
“Even after Ieng Sary’s death, the Co-Lawyers-Designate still have a duty of loyalty to him, which includes safeguarding his dignity and reputation,” Judge Harmon wrote, according to a copy of the confidential decision.
“The factual nexus between the cases against the Suspect and Ieng Sary, and the prima facie superior-subordinate relationship between the two, renders their interests materially adverse,” he added.
Although both Meas Muth and Ieng Sary had signed documents waiving any conflict of interest that might arise from sharing the same lawyers, Judge Harmon said these waivers were insufficient.
Mr. Karnavas declined to comment on the decision removing him, citing its confidentiality.
Due to the government’s longstanding opposition to Case 003, Judge Harmon is currently investigating the allegations against Meas Muth alone, without the backing of his Cambodian counterpart, You Bunleng, who has made it clear that he considers the case closed.
Judge Harmon’s decision follows months of back-and-forth between the defense lawyers and the court’s U.N. prosecutors, who have argued that Mr. Karnavas and Mr. Udom should be ineligible to represent Meas Muth. In the meantime, the defenders have been barred from meeting with their client or accessing the case file in Case 003.
Lawyers defending Ta An, a suspect in another government-opposed case, known as 004, have also complained that they cannot access their client’s case file. Without the documents in this file, it is nearly impossible for lawyers to make informed motions on their clients’ behalf as the investigation into their alleged crimes proceeds.
Court observers and even Pre-Trial Chamber judges have expressed concern that the fair trial rights of the suspects in cases 003 and 004 have been violated, as they have been under judicial investigation since 2009 but have gone for long periods of time without defense lawyers.
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