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What motivates someone to be a defence lawyer? How do you justify working for someone accused of crimes such as genocide and mass murder? These are the questions we have been trying to ask members of the defence team at the ECCC over the last couple of weeks, in an attempt to try to provide greater insight and accessibility to court proceedings, and the work being done.
Victor Koppe has a history representing alleged perpetrators of atrocities, and he is currently co-lawyer for Nuon Chea. The Dutch lawyer describes working at the court, as “frustrating”, and, at times, “deeply disappointing because of its blatant unfairness”. In this context, what makes him do what he does?
“My strong interest for the history of Cambodia. That will never go away. It still excites me”, Koppe describes himself as feeling like a bit of a history nerd, watching certain witnesses on the stand. He first read about the Khmer Rouge, around 35 years ago, within the context of the Cold War and the Western fear of communism, and his fascination with this period, trying to understand what happened, still motivates his work on the case.
Also, his loyalty to Nuon Chea keeps him here. “Especially in the last eight months, not a day goes by, where I don’t think, that’s it, I’m going”, says the Dutchman. However, Koppe believes strongly in loyalty to his client, not just as a defence lawyer, but also because he is personally convinced by the historical arguments in the case.
What does Nuon Chea hope to achieve in the trial? “Not a full acquittal. He accepts his fate, behind bars, for the rest of his life, but he wants, as he says, the head and the tail, and not just the body of the crocodile to be revealed. By this he means, he wants the rest of the history to be revealed; not just painting him, Pol Pot and the regime as 100 per cent black, but trying to understand what happened, within the context of what occurred, including the devastating US bombing of Cambodia, and the Soviet-backed aggression of Vietnam”, says Koppe.
Koppe’s work also entails posing confronting and tough questions to witnesses and civil parties who lost family members during the Khmer Rouge regime. How does he do it? “Just because someone tells a terrible tale, it does not mean we should per definition believe them”, Koppe explains. “And it is important to remember that this is a court of law, and not a truth and reconciliation commission”.
He suggests that witnesses are too readily believed, and that the level of questioning of witnesses is very simplistic. “It is pretty taboo to question someone’s death, especially in the context of alleged genocide, and mass murder”. However, Koppe holds firm that the questioning of witnesses and victims is necessary to determine what really happened, and to what extent his client was really involved.
Koppe believes that there is a “Standard Total View” of history (a term coined by the historian Michael Vickery) within the context of the trial, and that the opinions of three or four historians from the 1980s and 1990s are being rebooted, as the only correct ones. “People tend to come here with a view of what happened, already in their head, and they stick to that, rather than challenge its accuracy. There should be a much more fierce analysis of the facts, rather than just believing this outdated standard view of history, and what some witnesses say on the stand.”
Koppe’s personal involvement with the trial runs deep, and he speaks of turning to history, rather than law, when the trial is over; writing his own history book of what happened, or maybe a biography of Nuon Chea. “There hasn’t been enough work on this period”, he argues. “Whereas with the history of Nazi Germany, libraries exist for kilometres covering all the books, with the history of the Democratic Kampuchea Period, there is only one small shelf.” He intends to do something about this, and wishes the trial would be more formative, in complying with the truth-seeking measures he hopes for; questioning the status quo history, and painting a more accurate picture of what happened.
In a country where many people have already concluded that his client is guilty beyond any doubt, he has not experienced any problems with telling people what he does for a living. “Not with Cambodian people”, he says. “Everyone in my street knows what I do, and they are generally supportive”. According to Koppe, only Western people tend to assume that he is representing what is wrong, and denying the Cambodian people their truth.
Koppe says his work is for his client, the Cambodian people, and also for the international community. He believes in challenging the status quo of what happened, however taboo, and seemingly disrespectful that may be. His mission is to push for a legal truth, which is as close as possible to the historical truth; having thoroughly questioned, and stringently analysed, all the evidence.
Although some may describe him as a bit of a black sheep during the trial, presenting evidence and questioning witnesses, to create “fantastical stories” and hold back trial proceedings, he presents himself as doing the opposite. He is questioning the trial proceedings and questioning witnesses to provide an accurate picture of what happened.
He is not questioning that many people were killed or that his client had a very significant role in the Democratic Kampuchea regime; but he questions the way his client is being presented, and how the truth is presented, during the trial, and in history.
Public Affairs Intern
Khmer Rouge Tribunal