Observations| July 3, 2009
I’m going to talk about a couple of random observations in this post, so if it’s not particularly well tied together, forgive me!
There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve observed while working on criminal defense work here. It probably exists everywhere, but I’ve noticed in more in Cambodia for some reason. It just seemed more pronounced here. It’s the idea that criminal defense work, at least in the NGO context, primarily involves innocent people who have been wrongly accused. Of course, defending the innocent is a noble goal, but thus far, I have not seen that the majority of the defendants are in fact completely innocent of the crime charged. They may very well have had their rights violated in terms of how long they have been held in pre-trial detention, or in being denied visits with a lawyer or with their family, or by not being informed of their rights at arrest, but they are also not random people picked off the street because that corrupt police officer has an irrational grudge and wants to abuse his power (although I’m sure that this has happened and will happen again).
My point is that at least some of the people that IBJ and other defense organizations defend are, in fact, guilty of the crime that they are charged with. But they are never the focus of outreach concerning defense work. I can certainly understand this – I have struggled with the idea of defending people who have committed crimes. The thought of using technicalities to get someone off the hook can stick in the craw. You don’t want to think of yourself as that slick lawyer from Chicago, the one who gets all the murderous women out of jail on the strength of his courtroom theatrics. I think that this is a large part of the reason that so many of the stories put forth by legal aid organizations concern that idealized defendant – the one who really did nothing wrong. Men accused of rape after they kiss their girlfriend, or hold her hand; that guy who crossed a local authority and is paying the price by being falsely accused. You never read about that guy who actually did destroy a restaurant in a drunken rage, or the mother who beat her daughter, and was arrested without a warrant, not informed of their right to keep silent and their right to a lawyer, held in pre-trial detention for months on end and then convicted because they didn’t have the money to bribe the judge, prosecutor, or police.
Of course it is understandable that organizations don’t want to advertise these stories. It is much more palatable to hear about the truly innocent who are suffering for no reason, than to think of “bad” people who are getting what many would consider to be their just deserts. However, the rights that are promised in these lofty treaties, constitutions, and laws are meant to protect everything, the perpetrators as well as the victims. I guess I can see why the organizations focus on those special cases – they want people to support their organization, and going around saying that you defend criminals is probably not the best way to raise funds or moral support. It is a quandary that I do not have an answer for.
On a different note, cell phone culture here is totally different from anything I have ever experienced! I thought I had seen the spectrum. In Japan, cell phone use is almost taboo. Of course it is perfectly acceptable to talk in the privacy of your own home or in a business situation, but people will glare and actually request that you stop using the phone if you are on a bus, train, or in a restaurant. There are signs everywhere reminding people of their manners. On the other hand, in the US, cell phones are fine on a bus or train, but not when you’re in someone else’s company and certainly not in places in museums, theaters, and libraries. I remember being shocked when I came back from living in Japan and saw people talking on their phone inside a store. I thought it was so extreme that I would never get used to it again, although of course I became acclimated to it very quickly.
Cambodia is a whole new ballpark. I have seen moto drivers talking on their phone as they weave in and out of traffic while it is raining. I have seen people in meetings answer their phones. I have been in the middle of a conversation when someone's phone rang, and without even a "sorry," they pick it up and have a lengthy talk with whoever is calling. But the kicker is the courtroom phone calls. I was shocked when I saw a lawyer answer his phone call during a trial. Even worse, I’ve seen the sole judge in a criminal trial answer his phone while the accused was testifying. It wasn't a short conversation, either, considering that the trial didn't pause -- he must have talked to the person for about five minutes. And what’s more, no one even blinks. Amazing!