Son Arun sits in his team’s office on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh. The room’s walls are cluttered with photographs and posters: self-satisfied Khmer Rouge cadre aboard a train, a hefty and smiling Pol Pot surrounded by his grandchildren, a colorful map of Democratic Kampuchea, an image of a young Henry Kissinger pasted above the words “Brother No. ?”
“The Cambodian people hate the Khmer Rouge,” Arun says, “and because I’m a lawyer for the accused, they hate me too.”
Arun and Dutch attorney Victor Koppe are representing Nuon Chea at the beleaguered Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal was established in 2006 to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed during the regime’s 1975 to 1979 rule – a period in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives as a group of radical intellectuals and revolutionaries sought to transform their war torn country into an agrarian utopia. Nuon Chea is often cited as being the regime’s chief ideologue and Pol Pot’s right-hand man. Having officially served as deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the terse and unrepentant 87-year-old is the highest ranking member of the Khmer Rouge to be indicted by the ECCC.
The ECCC delivered its first and only conviction in 2010, eventually sentencing Kaing Guek Eav to life imprisonment for authorizing the torture and deaths of more than 12,273 inmates at the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison. Hearings in the case against Nuon Chea and three other top Khmer Rouge cadre began in June 2011.
Because of the scope and complexity of the case (and perhaps in order to get a conviction while all of the elderly defendants were still alive), the ECCC’s second case was severed into a series of “mini-trials” in September 2011. Since then, a dementia-suffering defendant has been declared unfit to stand trial and another – her husband – has died, leaving only Nuon Chea and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, 82, in the dock.
Known as Case 002/01, the first mini-trial, which dealt with mass population transfers and the execution of enemy soldiers, concluded on October 31. A judgment is expected in the second quarter of 2014. In the interim, the ECCC is discussing what future mini-trials might look like. The Supreme Court Chamber wants a final trial that encompasses “S-21, a worksite, a cooperative, and genocide” to “commence as soon as possible.” At meetings last week, late February 2014 was floated as a possible start date. A new panel of judges may also be hired to expedite the process. Without citing specific details, the ECCC’s Director of Administration, moreover, is assuring the Trial Chamber that that the chronically cash-strapped court will have sufficient funds to operate until the end of 2015.
As the details surrounding Case 002/02 coalesce, Arun and Koppe are preparing for what will likely be the ECCC’s final chapter. With international and public opinion set firmly against their aging client, I ask Arun why he chose to take on a case he has little chance of winning.
“I became Nuon Chea’s lawyer because I want to know the truth,” Arun says. “I want to know why so many people died in the 1970s, and I want to know who killed them.”
When I ask Arun why he didn’t join the prosecution, he laughs. “They had no money.”
In the early 1970s, Arun served as a major in Cambodia’s U.S.-backed army, commanding a battalion of more than five hundred men in a losing war against Pol Pot’s communists.
“Once, we fought for six days and six nights without food or water,” Arun recalls. “Can you believe that? Six days without water and you can die – but I’m still alive.”
Soon after the Khmer Rouge seized the capital in April 1975, Arun fled to Thailand. Had he stayed in Cambodia, he says, he would have surely been executed.
Arun eventually settled in the United States where he worked in doughnut shops while studying at the University of Houston. In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by an invading Vietnamese army, and in 1981, Arun was back in Southeast Asia, training anti-communist guerillas in the jungles along the Thai-Cambodian border. For the next decade, Arun would divide his time between Southeast Asia and the U.S. In the late 1980s, he even canvassed for George H. W. Bush while serving as chairman of the Cambodian Republican Federation.
Arun returned to Cambodia permanently following the UN-brokered elections of 1993. He received a certificate from Cambodia’s first lawyer training school in 1996 and has been practicing law in the country ever since.
When Arun first heard about the ECCC in 2006, he immediately tracked down his old high school teacher, Khieu Samphan. Like many other Khmer Rouge cadre, Samphan had been living free in western Cambodia since signing a ceasefire with the government in the late 1990s. Through Samphan, Arun got to know several prominent members of the long-toppled regime. One of them was Nuon Chea’s nephew.
“The day they arrested Nuon Chea in 2007, his nephew called to ask if I’d be his uncle’s lawyer,” Arun says. While other cadre lived in relative comfort, Nuon Chea – perhaps the most steadfast of his comrades – was living a simple rural existence. Arun immediately contacted Samphan, who said, “Help him. He doesn’t know anyone; he doesn’t know anything – he’s never even eaten noodles in a restaurant.” Samphan would be arrested exactly two months later.
As a hybrid tribunal, each office at the ECCC is run by both national and international staff. Tasked with hiring an international counterpart, Arun settled on Amsterdam-based Böhler Advocaten. Partners Michiel Pestman and Victor Koppe have divided the case work since being hired in 2007, with Koppe fully taking the reins from Pestman in January 2013.
“I’m interested in cases that pit the individual against the state, the international community, or public opinion,” Koppe tells me from the terrace of a Phnom Penh café. Koppe, a veteran criminal defense attorney, has represented terrorism suspects in the Netherlands, as well as defendants at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. “My job is to be an advocate for my clients, to make sure that their perspectives are getting across.”