Proceedings were halted at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday after Nuon Chea’s lead national lawyer left the courtroom on his client’s instructions, prompting judges to order the appointment of standby counsel to represent the former regime leader.
Nuon Chea’s international co-lawyer, Victor Koppe, did not show up to Tuesday’s hearing before the Supreme Court Chamber—part of the appeals process for the first phase of Case 002—at all. His national co-lawyer, Son Arun, made an initial appearance but left the room after his client read out a prepared statement blasting the court.
“From day one, it was my strong impression that this tribunal was not at all interested in exploring the truth,” Nuon Chea said. “Instead, it seems to operate as though its mission was simply to indulge the instructions of a handful of officials in power and tell a tale approved by the government before the tribunal was established.”
Calling the Trial Chamber’s August 2014 decision to convict him—along with Democratic Kampuchea head of state Khieu Samphan—on charges of crimes against humanity a “shameful failure,” Nuon Chea said the tribunal’s judges had neglected to take into account Vietnam’s alleged interference in the regime’s affairs.
“They ignored evidence that all of these events were related to Vietnam’s longstanding ambition to invade, expand and swallow up Cambodia and eliminate the Khmer people and integrate Cambodia into an Indochinese federation with Vietnam at the head,” he said, referencing an alleged coup attempt by Eastern Zone secretary Sao Phim and Northwestern Zone secretary Ros Nhim.
“Hiding from the truth, as the Trial Chamber judges did in their judgment, serves no one but the Vietnamese,” he said.
Nuon Chea also bemoaned decisions by both the Trial Chamber and the Supreme Court Chamber to not call National Assembly President Heng Samrin as a witness, describing the refusal to hear his testimony as “the most serious violation of them all.”
Citing the senior CPP politician’s position as both a Khmer Rouge military commander during the April 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh and as an associate of Sao Phim, he said Mr. Samrin was in a position to provide crucial exculpatory evidence.
“I am sure he would have agreed with me that no unnecessary harm was to be inflicted upon the people of Phnom Penh and other cities,” he said, adding that Mr. Samrin “could also have testified about his plans to overthrow the government of Democratic Kampuchea in a coup by Vietnam.”
The refusal of the tribunal’s national judges to call the parliamentarian to testify was further evidence of the court’s subservience to a government sensitive to accusations about its ties to the Khmer Rouge regime, Nuon Chea said.
“In doing so, the judges admitted that this tribunal is powerless. It is disrespected and it is simply acting under pressure from the government,” he said.
Concluding his statement, Nuon Chea said his defense team would provide no more than its appeals brief to the court during the remainder of the appeals process.
“Your honors, because of your decision, the outcome of the appeal is now irrelevant to me,” he said, instructing Mr. Arun to cease participation in the proceedings.
Mr. Arun then informed the court that he would be exiting the courtroom—leaving his client without legal counsel—despite threats from the judges that such a move would likely amount to contempt of court and could lead to disciplinary action.
“I would like to inform your honors that I am a professional lawyer; I must respect all existing laws. And let me make it clear that I duly respect this chamber. However, I am required to listen to the instructions of my client,” Mr. Arun said. “If not, my client will dismiss me.”
In response, prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian told the courtroom that Nuon Chea was not in a position to dictate the courtroom’s proceedings.
“These proceedings, as everyone knows, are extremely serious, dealing with some of the most serious crimes imaginable,” Mr. Koumjian said.
“He’s been here not because of an invitation to something like a cocktail party that you can decline to attend. He’s here because he’s facing extremely serious charges that involves suffering and victims from around Cambodia.”
Following a 2-1/2-hour recess, Supreme Court Chamber President Kong Srim announced that the court had decided to adjourn until standby counsel could be selected to represent Nuon Chea, as the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure and internal tribunal rules required the accused to be represented in the courtroom by legal counsel.
“Unforeseen issues may arise upon which the interest of the accused may require making submissions, and having the counsel present is essential in the interests of justice,” Judge Srim said. “Therefore, this requirement cannot be waived by the accused person.”
He added that any decisions regarding disciplinary action against Nuon Chea’s defense team would be taken “in due course.”
Contacted after on Tuesday’s proceedings, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said it was not yet clear how long proceedings at the court would be delayed by the walkout and the decision to appoint standby counsel.
Mr. Koppe and Mr. Arun both declined to comment.
Tuesday’s walkout was the second by the defense team in three months. In August, Mr. Koppe walked out of the trial chamber over a dispute about the trial’s conduct and the inclusion of written records of interviews during a documentary hearing, also forcing an adjournment.
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