French celebrity lawyer Jacques Verges recently ended a five-day stay in Cambodia
in which he toured the facilities of the Khmer Rouge Trials (KRT) and caught up with
an old college classmate and friend of over 50 years - former Democratic Kampuchea
Head of State Khieu Samphan.
"He came to see me from August 23 to August 28," Samphan, 75, told the
Post on September 5 from his home in Phnom Penh. "He just came to see the court
and confirm that he would be defending me. It is natural for him to defend me and
without demanding me to pay."
In his long and vastly controversial career, Verges, 81, has earned a reputation
for defending some of the world's most infamous figures. In 1987 he defended ex-Nazi
war criminal Klaus Barbie, known as "the Butcher of Lyons." Seven years
later he stood at the side of Venezuelan Ilich Ramiriez Sanchez, also known as "Carlos
the Jackal" for his notorious spree of bombing, kidnappings and hijackings.
When it was announced that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured, Verges
offered his service within days.
Although it has been reported since 2004 that Verges would defend Samphan, this is
the first meeting between the two since the KRT officially began proceedings earlier
this year. In 2001, Samphan issued a public letter in which he offered an apology
to the Cambodian people, but denied any knowledge of mass executions and claimed
"history should remain history."
As a student activist during the early 1950s at the Sorbonne in Paris, Verges' anti-colonial
activities attracted a clique of Cambodia students that included Samphan, and a young
Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot. Verges publicly supported the Democratic Kampuchea
regime before and during its bloody reign that is blamed for the deaths of nearly
two million Cambodians in the late 1970s.
In his article 2004 article The Strange Story of Jacques Verges, author Michael Radu,
went so far as to postulate that after the 1950s "Verges' connection wth the
Khmer Rouge continued: his disappearance from the public eye between 1970 and 1978
has been attributed by some to his joining the Khmer Rouge."
Officials at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) confirmed
that Verges was present at their offices on August 25, but were unwilling to discuss
details of the trip. Attempts to contact Verges were not immediately successful.
"We welcome Jacques Verges' visit to the ECCC, but he was not here on behalf
of a client as a defense attorney," said Reach Sambath, ECCC spokesman. "We
have no comment about his presence because we have no detailed information. We are
not in process of indictment and there is no job for a lawyer to do."
According to an ECCC official, there have been no indictments, no court orders have
been issued and Khieu Samphan has every right to seek private legal council.
"It is not our business to disclose who's visiting the facilities on legal matters,"
said Helen Jarvis, chief of public affairs for the ECCC. "Our doors our open
to provide information to anyone."
Verges' penchant for representing the unpopular gained him the nickname "The
Devil's Advocate." And before France abolished the death penalty in 1981, Verges'
extremely low win rate prompted the French press to refer to him as "Monsieur
Guillotine," given the fate of many of his clients.
Despite his reputation - he penned a book titled The Beauty of Crime and once admitted
to a "passionate interest in evil" - Verges' possible involvement in the
KRT has piqued the interest of observers and ECCC officers.
"I have not worked before with Jacques Verges, but his reputation goes before
him, and in searching for the truth he is a man who never fears to ask any question
of anyone, no matter how difficult the answer may be for many people," wrote
Rupert Skilbeck, ECCC principle defender, in an e-mail.
"If one of the purposes of the ECCC is to find out what happened in Cambodia
and why, then there is no better advocate to assist in that task. Attacking the prosecution
is the job of any good defense advocate. Maître Verges happens to be very good
Skilbeck, whose job it is to ensure international standards of defense for all the
accused in court, believes that Verges' fame and aptitude will only enhance the ECCC.
"I think that his involvement in the process will raise the profile of the Court,
raise the interest in the trial process both in Cambodia and abroad, and will mean
that all parties will have to be ready to deal with anything," he said. "That
can only be a good thing."
But Milton Osborne, Australian historian and former Australian diplomat who has studied
Cambodia for more than 40 years, said that it is highly likely that Verges will continue
his trademark "attack the prosecution" defense.
"I don't think one can discount part of Verges' wish to be involved in the KRT
as the actions of an individual who is congenitally 'against the government,' who
seizes every opportunity 'pour épater la bourgeoisie'," Osborne said.