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Cambodia

Lawyer for Khmer Rouge’s Nuon Chea was practising illegally, says Cambodian bar association, casting mistrial risk over historic verdict

  • Victor Koppe is dismissed by a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia after the bar association reports he was unregistered as a lawyer in the Netherlands in 2016
  • The revelation throws doubt over the nine-year process to bring justice to Nuon Chea – Pol Pot’s ‘Brother No 2’ – and fellow defendant Khieu Samphan
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 12:57am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 9:19pm

The defence lawyer for Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s infamous “Brother No 2” in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, may have been working without proper legal authority for years, adding yet another layer of uncertainty to the United Nations-backed tribunal that has dragged on for nine years.

The disclosure, found in a document issued by the Cambodian Bar Association (BAKC) on December 11 and seen by the South China Morning Post, cast in doubt the proceedings of the highly publicised international tribunal that led to the guilty verdict rendered last month, and raises the possibility of a mistrial or an appeal.

Victor Koppe was dismissed by the tribunal after it came to light that he was not registered as a lawyer in Cambodia when he represented Chea in court last month.

The document shows that Koppe had been taken off the BAKC list in August this year.

“The fact that Mr Victor Koppe continued to dress as a professional lawyer, use the legal profession and participate in the court proceedings after his name had been removed from the BAKC is in breach of the law on the bar,” reads the document sent to the Defence Support Section (DSS) of the tribunal, and signed by BAKC Deputy Secretary General Koy Neam.

“The BAKC hopes that you will cooperate … in order to avoid any legal consequences arising from Mr Victor Koppe’s illegal profession,” the document said.

Khmer Rouge leaders convicted of genocide in landmark court ruling

The BAKC document was stamped by the tribunal as having been received on Thursday, December 13.

On November 16, the tribunal convicted the 92-year-old Chea, along with 87-year old Khieu Samphan, of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Both men, the two most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime, were sentenced to life in prison.

The verdict was the second one for the two men. In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld their life sentence for their involvement in the regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people.

Following the issuance of the BAKC document, the defence section terminated Koppe’s contract, said Neth Pheaktra, a tribunal spokesman. He told the Post that Koppe had cancelled his registration with the Amsterdam Bar Association on January 1, 2016.

As foreign lawyers in Cambodia have to be registered in their home country and the BAKC in order to practise, Pheaktra said that Koppe “cannot continue to practise in Cambodia”.

“Mr Nuon Chea has been informed of the situation and is currently considering his options, including selecting a possible replacement for Mr Koppe.”

The Amsterdam Bar Association confirmed that Koppe had only been registered until December 31, 2015, but could not provide further information.

Koppe declined to comment.

Was Cambodia’s US$300 million Khmer Rouge tribunal worth it?

It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken against Koppe for practising as a lawyer in Cambodia for nearly three years even though he did not have a right to do so, as he was not registered as one in his home country.

Pheaktra declined to comment, saying: “Let the court decide on this.”

Other court sections of the tribunal also declined to comment. They included DSS chief Isaac Endeley, trial chamber judge Claudia Fenz, and lead co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian.

This is not the first time Koppe has been involved in a controversy. A few years ago, he hurled personal insults against a judge at the tribunal and questioned his impartiality.

He also left his client without legal representation when Koppe decided to boycott the proceedings. He was then referred to the Amsterdam Bar Association twice between the end of 2015 and early 2016.

BAKC president Suon Visal did not respond to requests for comments.