Khmer Rouge leader on trial for genocide

Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan faces charges of crimes against humanity. His controversial French lawyer, Jacques Verges has branded his detention as illegal. C. Payen reports from Cambodia.


French lawyer Jacques Vergès is back in Cambodia for the fourth time in a few months.

His client Khieu Samphan, a former Khmer rouge head of state, is up for his first public hearing, fighting charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.  

Vergès, who has dubbed Samphan’s detention ‘illegal,’ took the offensive early on, claiming he was prevented to do his defendant job because some of the court documents hadn’t been translated.

“I’m here to announce a scandal!” says Vergès. “This morning, I’ve informed the tribunal that 16,000 pages of accusations against Khieu Samphan were not translated into French!”

Vergès argues that French is an official language of the UN-backed tribunal. The court was set up in 2006 to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during their brutal 1975-1979 rule.

“I have asked them to be frank!” Vergès says. “If they think that French is not anymore an international language, just say it! Then, obviously, all the procedure is wrong!”

The judges warned Vergès over his behavior as he made a theatrical exit past dumbfounded UN officials. The proceedings are now adjourned to an unknown date.

The controversial lawyer, who has defended some of the world’s most notorious criminals including the Nazi Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal, is known for his firebrand manner in court.

 The judges said Verges and his Cambodian co-lawyer had given no indication of any such difficulties since filing their appeal on December 21, 2007.

"As a consequence of the behaviour of the international co-lawyer advising with effectively no notice that he will not continue to act in this appeal within the circumstances mentioned above, a warning is given to him," they said in a statement.


Vergès, lawyer and long-time friend

A fierce anti-colonialist, Vergès, who was born in Thailand, reportedly befriended Khieu Samphan and other future Khmer Rouge leaders while at university in Paris in the 1950s.

Khieu Samphan , 76, listened stony-faced as head judge Prak Kimsan read out the background of the case against him. Dressed in a light-grey shirt and trousers, he told the court that he had lived in poverty for the past 10 years.

"I have had no job since leaving the jungle. (I have) only my wife, who struggles to feed me and my family," Khieu Samphan said in Khmer, referring to his 1998 defection from the then-dying Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement based in the remote northwest.

According to the prosecution charges, Khieu Samphan aided and abetted the Khmer Rouge regime in policies which were "characterised by murder, extermination, imprisonment, persecution on political grounds and other inhumane acts."

Defence lawyers argue that Khieu Samphan had no real power under the regime and in appeal documents lodged in December they petitioned for a dismissal of the detention order "because Mr Khieu Samphan is not guilty."

"He was simply a head of state in name only," they said in the documents.

Khieu Samphan, the last of five top regime leaders to be arrested and detained by the tribunal, has never denied the bloodletting under the Khmer Rouge but has repeatedly denied his involvement in the atrocities.

Up to two million people are believed to have been executed or died of starvation and overwork as the communist regime emptied Cambodia's cities, exiling millions to vast collective farms in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia.

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