TANG CHHIN SOTHY
French Secretary of State in charge of Human Rights Rama Yade visits the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on April 24 during a three-day official visit to Cambodia. Yade announced France, the second largest donor to the ECCC, would give $1 million this year to the court responsible for trying senior members of the Khmer Rouge.
Threatening to complain to the UN over the “contempt” with which the French language is treated by the Khmer Rouge tribunal is a flamboyant way of drawing attention to a rather dull problem: the court’s massive translation backlog.
On April 23, notorious advocate Jacques Verges derailed the bail hearing of his client, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, by refusing to participate on the grounds that 16,000 pages of evidence had not been translated into French.
“French is an official language of the tribunal but not a single document has been translated,” he told the Post after the hearing was suspended. “It is unacceptable. I was looked down on by the tribunal.”
While criticized as excessive, even a move of sabotage, Verges’s courtroom gamble underscores how easily an otherwise mundane bureaucratic function like translation can overshadow all the drama of an international genocide trial.
“The vast majority (of documents) are not translated into French,” said Alex Bates, the court’s senior assistant prosecutor.
“They’re also not in English,” he added.
The ECCC uses three official languages – in addition to English and French, international staff have to grapple with linguistically vague Khmer documents, of which there are millions.
Translation alone accounts for a vast percentage of the court’s already stretched budget, and expanding its abilities to provide accurate copies of all documents, in all three languages, is the focus of a proposed budget increase that triples the original amount of money the ECCC was seeking from donors.
The tribunal’s $56.3 million was always far too small to complete the task at hand, some court officials have complained, with Co-prosecutor Robert Petit in the past calling the money constraints a “600-pound gorilla” that would have to be dealt with eventually.
That eventuality came earlier this year, with the ECCC facing insolvency and being forced to go to the donors for an additional $114 million – a significant percentage of which would go towards enlarging the court’s translation abilities.
“Translation is an issue that is much wider than just French,” said tribunal spokeswoman Helen Jarvis.
Khieu Samphan at the ECCC on April 23.
“The prosecutors file in English and Khmer, the co-investigating judges in French and Khmer, Marcel Lemonde [the co-investigating judge] is French … [co-investigating judge] You Bun Leng’s team trained in France, Robert Petit is a francophone, Chea Leang speaks German and Alex Bates is English,” she explained.
“The case file in particular is a growing object; every interview, every piece of evidence parties put in the case file adds to it and add to the backlog of what needs to be translated,” Jarvis told the Post on May 1.
The court has thus far relied on everyone “working constructively when faced with very real challenges: the amount of documentation, the limited number of translation staff available,” she said.
But Verges is, unsurprisingly, refusing to play ball, drawing accusations from prosecutors that he “ambushed” the court.
“Given the fact he should have known his position at least four months ago it was not appropriate to raise it only on the morning of the hearing,” Bates said.
Internal rule 75/4 of the ECCC states that if any party wishes to rely on arguments they must be provided in writing in advance.
“The appellant may not raise any matters of fact or law during the hearing which are not already set out in the submissions on appeal,” according to the rules.
Many observers were infuriated by what they saw as Verges stalling tactics.
Genocide researcher Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, called it a “lousy way to defend even though it is legally justifiable.”
“The victims do not need that in this court,” he said.
Even Samphan’s 57-year-old wife, So Socheath, said she was disappointed not to see the “process of the hearing” take place as she is waiting “to see justice for both my husband and the victims,” she said.