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A man of principle stands up

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Lawyer Sa Sovan says he's fighting to strengthen Cambodia's judiciary in defending former KR head of state Khieu Samphan

Photo by:
Anne Laure Poree

Sa Sovan (right) and his co-lawyer Jacque Verges at the Extraordinary Chambers last year.

FRENCH-educated lawyer Sa Sovan, 68, lost "around 50" relatives, including his father, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. As the Cambodian co-lawyer for former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, he has been at odds with other victims, notably when he engaged in a shouting match following a December 4 hearing with victims angered by the request that every document in his client's case file be translated into French. In an interview with the Post, Sa Sovan discusses his decision to join the defence team and what the Khmer Rouge tribunal means for the country's judicial system.            

Why did you decide to defend Khieu Samphan?

I lost around 50 relatives to the Khmer Rouge regime, but I decided to defend Khieu Samphan nonetheless because I want to defend the justice system. Khieu Samphan proposed I defend him after his former Cambodian co-lawyer, Say Bory, resigned because of health problems [in June 2008]. If I had not accepted Khieu Samphan's proposition, he might not have received good representation. I could not reject his request because he was a lawmaker at Sa-Ang district, Kandal province, my home district, during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk. I knew Khieu Samphan. I knew that he was a just person.

I make a clear separation between the personal losses I sustained and the legal merits of the case. I already lost my dad. I do not want to lose respect for the rule of law in my country. If the tribunal cannot find sufficient evidence against him, Khieu Samphan should be released. Similarly, if the tribunal finds that Khieu Samphan is guilty, the court  should sentence him. I will not protest.

Currently, there is a cloud of uncertainty; we don't know who is guilty for the crimes of the regime. I want to find justice.

You say Khieu Samphan is a just person. Do you think you can make this case convincingly in light of the prosecution's allegations?

In defending him, I plan to note that he served the nation in joining the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime and, later, in criticising officials in that regime. People in the regime attacked him, but he continued in politics, joining the opposition movement.  I think the Khmer Rouge pushed him into a high position before he knew about the killings and the torture. He found out about the killings in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. The Cambodian people know this.

We want to answer the question: Why didn't Khieu Samphan know what was going on?  The defence team and the tribunal are exploring this question.  

Have you found defending Khieu Samphan to be difficult?

With my skills in private and criminal law, I don't have any problem defending Khieu Samphan. Also, I have known [Khieu Sampan's French co-lawyer] Jacques Verges since I was in France. I know his name and how famous he is, and I am familiar with his thinking. So we find it easy to work together.    

Your client's case has been stalled by the translation issue, with you and Verges insisting all documents be translated into French.  Has the tribunal replied to your request?

Not yet. According to the agreement between the Cambodian government and United Nations, documents should be translated into the three official languages used by the tribunal: Khmer, French and English. Khieu Samphan has a Khmer lawyer and a French lawyer. There are many documents that have not been translated from Khmer and English into French. If the tribunal doesn't translate them, the French co-lawyer cannot defend Khieu Samphan because he won't be able to fully understand the accusations.

Given that many victims of the Khmer Rouge are holding onto a lot of anger, do you worry about your personal security?

I decided to defend Khieu Samphan because I would like to search for real justice for all parties, including both the victims and those who are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. I am not worried about my security. But the state should teach people about the law so we can avoid the type of situation we had [on December 4].

What is your reaction to accusations of corruption at the tribunal?

I have heard that the tribunal has been accused of corruption, but I don't have time to investigate this because I am too busy defending Khieu Samphan, teaching law students and writing a book. I will let other people investigate these accusations. I heard the rumours before I worked there. 

What do you expect the KRT will accomplish for the Cambodian judicial system?      

I think that the tribunal is very important and will be a good example for the Cambodian judicial system. I am proud of it. The Cambodian participants are learning a lot from the international participants. I hope they will use this knowledge in the future, even if they don't use it in the current situation.

Interview by Neth Pheaktra



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