A dispute over the fees that Cambodian lawyers are trying to charge foreign defense attorneys is threatening the long-awaited trial of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. VOA's Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.
After almost a decade of tortuous negotiations, hopes have been high that that the way was finally clear to try the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge - the radical communist movement responsible for the deaths of almost two million Cambodians in the late 1970s.
In March, agreement was finally reached between Cambodia and the United Nations on the rules that will govern the day-to-day running of the joint Cambodian-U.N. tribunal. That allowed the court to begin preparing indictments.
But now, at the 11th hour, a dispute has arisen over the $4,900 fee that foreign defense lawyers have been told they will have to pay to the Cambodian Bar Association in order to take part in the trial.
Peter Foster, international public affairs officer for the U.N.'s Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trial program, says the fee is 10 times the going rate for such situations.
"As a result of the fees, it is felt that many international lawyers who would want to take part will choose not to, because of the amount of the fees," he said. "As a result, the potential is there for accused while on trial to argue in the middle of a case that they were not able to get access to the lawyer of their choice, which would result in a mistrial, and no body wants that."
Cambodian Bar Association officials say the high fees are necessary to help pay for a proposed law library to be used by foreign attorneys. They also say the fees will help close the income gap between Cambodian and foreign lawyers.
But observers of the tribunal, such as Theary Seng of Cambodia's Center for Social Development, say that the reason behind the fee demand is more political than financial.
"The Cambodian government never truly wanted a Khmer Rouge tribunal," he said. "This is a politicized process, and the Cambodian Bar Association is being used as an actor, as a pawn, to achieve larger political goals."
"I think that there are influences and powers who want to make sure that if it is to go forward, that they are in control," he continued.
Negotiations to resolve the fee dispute are set to continue until the end of April. If agreement cannot be reached by then, the international judges and lawyers say the U.N. will decide on the rules for foreign defense lawyers on its own - a move the Cambodian Bar Association says would contravene Cambodian law.
Cambodian judges and lawyers selected to take part in the trial have said that they will not do so without the approval of the bar association.