As anyone who has spent time in Cambodia knows, people in this country generally go to great lengths to avoid overt confrontation. So the verbal sparring that erupted at a post-hearing press conference Thursday revealed the extent to which Khmer Rouge survivors were offended -- and even enraged -- by the antics of Khieu Samphan's defense team.
Center ring was Jacques Verges, Samphan's French co-lawyer. A bombastic character who has made a career defending notorious clients like Nazi Klaus Barbie, he returned to the ECCC to once again argue that all the documents in Khieu's case file be translated into French. Because the court has refused to provide adequate translation -- and thus violated Khieu's rights -- the former Khmer Rouge head of state should be released from provisional detention, Verges argued. A decision on the defense's appeal is due at a later date.
True to reputation, Verges' appearance at the hearing had a theatrical flair. (Recently, he has been performing a one-man show, Serial Plaideur, in Paris). Verges accused Co-Prosecutors of "mocking" him and said he felt like he was in "a third world market bargaining to receive translations."
"I am wearing a robe that gives me dignity and I am not wearing the slippers of a servant," Verges told the court. "... I laugh in the face of your threats."
As the hearing adjourned, Verges and his similarly animated Cambodian counterpart, Sa Sovan, were swarmed by media. They continued to lambaste the court at a press conference and challenged the Co-Prosecutors to a debate. But victims in the audience quickly lost patience with the defense lawyers' arguments and demeanor.
"You, co-lawyer, you speak too much," a diminutive woman called out from the audience. "Why not let the victims speak too? We are here but we cannot speak."
The exchange quickly devolved into a shouting match, with Sa Sovan rebuking and pointing accusatorily at the woman, before court staff escorted him and Verges out of the room.
A much less eventful presentation by the Co-Prosecutors followed, and afterwards, the victims were allowed to have their say. Most expressed anger with Khieu's defense team, saying the lawyers had no respect for victims or for the court.
"Please don't play games with the souls of 1.7 million dead people," one civil party pleaded. "You are performing a circus."
Several called on the ECCC to bar Verges from the tribunal. No doubt he will get some mileage out of this -- Verges already repeatedly invokes the judges' previous suggestion that Khieu replace him after he refused to participate in his client's April hearing.
Thursday's incident was the first time I have seen such an outburst of emotion at the tribunal. I had wondered how Verges' notoriously dramatic courtroom style would go over in Cambodia, and I think this reaction offers a preliminary answer. Victims were deeply offended by what they perceived as a flippant attitude toward the court, and to their own suffering.
At the same time, while Verges is an unusually outspoken attorney (here, anyway), what many Cambodians see as "game playing" is standard in most western courts. Defense attorneys are often accused of being obstructionist -- delaying proceedings and nitpicking over seemingly insignificant issues are common strategies they use to represent clients.
This may be hard for people here to grasp, considering the lack of standard courtroom procedure and due process in the Cambodian judicial system. The fact that most people already believe the defendants are guilty adds a further level of complication.
Once again, this is why education and outreach are so vital to the court's success. Otherwise, regular people will continue to see the ECCC as a money pit, where lawyers haggle over trivial concerns, while the architects of Democratic Kampuchea grow frailer, and closer to death.
* Pictured, from top to bottom: Jacques Verges; Verges at press conference; civil parties respond. (I have video clips as well, which I will attempt to post in the next few days.)