Law Students to Provide Legal Support in Trials of Khmer Rouge Leadership

Lexington, VA Thursday, September 27, 2007

The second highest ranking official in the Khmer Rouge regime was recently taken into custody to stand trial for atrocities that occurred during the bloody reign of that totalitarian regime, and soon the country of Cambodia, with the help of students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law, will begin the slow march to justice and reconciliation.

As part of the school's International Law Practicum, one of several new initiatives that seek to provide students with cutting-edge experiential learning opportunities, students will provide detailed analysis on legal issues for the Defense Support Unit of the tribunal established to try the Khmer Rouge leadership. The tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was created by law in 2001 by the Cambodian National Assembly to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime, which was in power from 1975 to 1979.

In all, ten third-year students will participate in the Practicum, four during fall semester and six during spring semester. The goals of the Practicum are to harmonize classroom legal learning with the practical work of lawyers in a diverse transnational setting, offering pedagogically sound learning experiences in international law while bridging to the practical legal work of the profession. The Practicum is a central element of the law school's new Transnational Law Institute, established in 2006, to globalize the study of law at W&L.


Akiko Krystina Nishino '08 (standing) served as an intern for the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials in the Defence Support Section this summer. Above she discusses her experience with Practicum students and faculty before they departed for Cambodia.

Already students involved in the Practicum are finding it unlike anything they've experienced in their legal education. While similar tribunals have been established in other countries, such as Sierra Leone and the Balkans, any time an international legal framework is applied to a new culture, paths must be blazed, and the Practicum students now find themselves working on the cutting edge of international law.

"Many of our projects involve unexamined areas of international law," says Juliette Syn '08, one of the students participating in the Practicum. "Our challenge is to find a way to place information and events within a legal framework so that a fair defense and legitimate defense can be mounted."

Syn is one of the three Practicum students, including David James Knight '08 and Jennifer Lavoie '08, who traveled to Cambodia in September with the Practicum's director, visiting professor Thomas H. (Speedy) Rice, to meet with the ECCC Defense Services Director and staff to discuss ongoing work and future assignments. It was through Professor Rice's connections in the international legal community and in particular his relationship with the Defense Services Director, British barrister Rupert Skilbeck, that the W&L students were able to participate in the trials.

"This practicum is a challenging and unique student learning experience," says Rice. "The faculty and administration of Washington and Lee deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to approve and support new and creative legal education models for their students."

During their stay in Cambodia, the students also observed a three day training session for the defense lawyers appearing before the ECCC covering the highly complex and unique legal issues that emerge during international criminal trials. For the remainder of the semester, the three students, along with a fourth student, Bobby Littlehale '08, will work with defense attorneys in Cambodia via conference call, e-mail and internet researching emerging legal issues and developing advocacy materials.


David James Knight '08 (foreground) participates in a training session for defense lawyers appearing before the ECCC, the tribunal established to try the leadership of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity.

Almost all the news reports surrounding the upcoming trials center on the human rights abuses that occurred during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and students acknowledge working for the defense is difficult.

"Reading about all the terrible things that occurred tears at us human beings," says Syn. "But it forces us to focus on the legal perspective and to really examine how international law should work."

Rice echoes these sentiments. "The representation of accused war criminals is never popular, but it is honorable and essential to the Rule of Law. Honor is at the core of the W&L educational and social experience. This Practicum is a statement of honor and justice, and it speaks to the character of the school, its students and community."

Many Cambodians wonder what purpose the trials will serve, with the events long past and the perpetrators now old men or deceased. Still others in Cambodia and in the international community worry that by re-opening old wounds the trials could de-stabilize the country as it transitions to democracy.

Professor Mark Drumbl, who directs the School of Law's Transnational Law Institute and who has written extensively on atrocities and international law, admits that securing complete justice for the millions killed is out-of-reach. But he believes trials like these serve an important purpose in a war-ravaged country's evolution.

"The trials serve an expressive function," says Drumbl. "Holding someone accountable for the crimes sets up an historical narrative. The truth will finally be told, and this will become a focal point in the education of future generations and a tool for prevention."

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