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New prosecutor, old hand

International Co-Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian at his office in the ECCC in Phnom Penh
International Co-Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian at his office in the ECCC in Phnom Penh yesterday. Heng Chivoan

New prosecutor, old hand

The Khmer Rouge tribunal’s new international co-prosecutor, Nicholas Koumjian, has worked at a host of international courts in his 30-odd years in law – so many, in fact, that it would be easier for him to answer the question of which tribunals he hasn’t worked at.

“I’ve been at most of them, actually,” he said in an interview yesterday. “I was at the [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia],” he said.

“I was at East Timor. Then I went to Sarajevo, the State Court in Bosnia-Herzegovina.… Then I went to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, working on the Charles Taylor case. Then the last two years, I’ve also worked at the [International Criminal Court].”

Now, with only a few courtroom days under his belt at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Koumjian will have the opportunity to bring his past to bear on the tribunal’s future as it pivots away from the just-wrapped Case 002/01, and into Case 002/02, whose scope and schedule is still very much up for debate.

Luckily, as Koumjian tells it, some things hold true across all tribunals, like the difficulty in tying senior leaders to ground-level crimes.

“We’re talking about individual killings of people in villages, where the accused person, the top leader, doesn’t know the victim, never met them, doesn’t know the killer, never met them. So how do you hold them responsible?” he said.

To that end, the prosecution is arguing that all of the evidence from Case 002/01 – which dealt directly with leaders’ responsibility for the regime’s crimes – forms the basis for Case 002/02.

What’s more, Koumjian argues, waiting for a verdict in the previous case isn’t necessary if Case 002/02 simply lifts the evidence from Case 002/01 without stipulating it as fact, and lets it – once again – be judged on its own merits at the end of the trial.

The defence for Khieu Samphan, however, staunchly opposes that plan, and has also argued that potential cuts to defence funding would threaten its “equality of arms” with the prosecution – accusations of bias being another universal constant in courts of law, Koumjian said.

“You talk to every public defender in Los Angeles, and they’ll tell you that juries and judges are biased in favour of the prosecution,” he said, noting that the ECCC deals with “very infamous crimes”.

“The fact that the prosecution may have a very strong case … doesn’t mean that there should be no trial because of the danger of bias against the accused.”

But even more so than accusations of bias, there is one other constant Koumjian is likely to encounter in spades at the Khmer Rouge tribunal – criticism. “At every tribunal there are some critics and some criticisms, and that’s nothing new,” Koumjian said, noting that, nonetheless, the ECCC was unique in that regard.

“One thing I’ve noticed here, more than the other courts, is that there seems to be too much, in my view, negativity and pessimism about it, even by those who are proponents of the court … and I think sometimes that can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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