Thursday January 8, 2009 Posted on TODAYonline By ESTHER NG firstname.lastname@example.org WHEN Singaporean lawyer Mahdev Mohan went to Cambodia to interview victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, he wanted to get away from two places with terrible memories for them — Tuol Sleng, the infamous torture site-turned-museum, and the Phnom Penh Court. So, he suggested the Bodhi Restaurant. But soon after they walked in, Chum Mey, 72, and Bou Meng, 78, appeared “visibly shaken”. To Mr Mahdev’s dismay, it turned out to be the place where the two survivors had been first tortured. “It was then I realised you can’t run away from the gruesome past, it’s everywhere,” said the 30-year-old Singaporean lawyer, who is the first non-Cambodian legal eagle in Asia appointed as legal counsel to victims of the brutal regime. Evidence given by the survivors will be used in the long-overdue war crime trials of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders, which are expected to begin in July. Chum Mey and Bou Meng are two of the seven survivors of Tuol Sleng. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned there; they were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates. It struck Mr Mahdev “how fresh the wounds were, and how clearly these victims remembered how the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their family members”. It was his desire to “give a voice to these people” that spurred him to quit his job as a criminal and litigation lawyer at Drew and Napier, where he had worked for three years. He joined the Singapore Management University as a law lecturer and, with his ex-journalist wife, set up a non-government organisation, Access to Justice Asia (AJA), last October to represent Cambodian minorities — mainly the Khmer Krom — in the tribunal hearings. Atrocities committed against the Khmer Krom had included the internment of 10,000 in Kraing Ta Chan prison. “There were no known survivors,” he said. One challenge Mr Mahdev faced was getting the survivors to trust him and open up. “You can’t approach them as a lawyer, you’ve got to talk to them like you’re talking to your relative (so that they are) comfortable enough to tell you their story, and trust you to tell it in court.” And then, there is the hard task of explaining the long road ahead — why the five hated leaders accused of such terrible war crimes must have defence lawyers, what a fair trial means, and how, at the end of the day, the survivors will not get any monetary reparations. Even as the Mohans fly off to the United States today — where Mr Mahdev will complete his Masters of Laws at Stanford Law School on a Fulbright Scholarship — they will continue their preparations for the hearings, which include interviewing close to 100 Khmer Krom victims. “We’ll be in touch with some of our AJA members on the ground.” Mr Mahdev’s interest was stoked during a holiday in Cambodia in 2006. The next year, he stayed there for six months doing volunteer work and later quit his job and set up AJA. “It’s just amazing that two hours away, there’s this amazing process going on where people need qualified lawyers — this is what attracted me to be part of it.” But it was his father, criminal lawyer and law professor S Chandra Mohan, who inspired his interest in criminal and human rights law in the first place. “In Singapore, there is the impression that the scope of criminal law is limited. It’s not true, there is a lot of scope to make a difference in Singapore and internationally,” he said, citing two ongoing war crimes tribunals, the other being in Timor Leste.