The past week or so of work has been interesting and challenging. As I expected, a lot of time is spent trying to communicate with co-workers in a broken mixture of Khmer and English; I am constantly flipping through my Khmer-English dictionary. Luckily I haven’t been totally ineffective. The office is small, with only me and three others (one lawyer, the lawyer’s assistant, and an accountant), and they definitely make my presence feel valued. I edit documents, help organize programs, write stories on clients, and research various issues on Cambodian law for IBJ’s programs. In a typical workday, clients trickle in and out of the office while the lawyer, lawyer assistant and I make periodic trips to the court and prison for meetings or trials. I could try to explain everything I have learned about the Cambodian court system, the extensive land issues throughout Ratanikiri Province, or many of the individual cases that my boss is working on, but instead I’d like to document my experience in first visiting the Rattanikiri prison. The experience was important and moving for me, and I hope that I can share some of that with you.
On the drive to the prison, my boss explains to me why he wants me to see this. From what I gather, he wants me to see the horrible condition of the place and gain an understanding that his clients are good people who usually just make one small mistake. We pull up to a skinny white gate blocking off a dirt driveway. My boss shouts out the car window to a man sitting in a restaurant with a bunch of other Khmer men about 50 meters away. The man runs over and easily lifts the gate. We are then led into a room in the Administration Building, a white cement structure coated in a thick layer of orange Rattanikiri dirt. Dusty stacks of papers and binders line the walls, their filing system. A man shuffles around some case files, yells at some people through a window, and we are ushered through a wide opening in a fence; there is no gate and children are playing outside. The prison is essentially an outdoor dirt courtyard with a volleyball net surrounded by three small, long, buildings. Men wearing navy pajamas with white trim walk across the courtyard from one building to the next, carrying water buckets or kitchen utensils. I don’t see any guards, and when I ask my co-worker about this and the general lack of security, he tells me that no one ever tries to escape because the prison chief is “klung klung,” “very strong.”
After being led through the gate, we sit down on a bench to face two men wearing the navy pajamas, vertical wooden bars separating us from them. The first defendant is a very small boy, barely 18 years old. He’s shaking a lot. My boss introduces himself and asks for his story. The kid looks down when he talks, a wrinkle of concern between his brows. I think he might start to cry at several points in the story. He stole a moto. In the little Khmer I know, I can pick up that he keeps saying, “bai jung ding, jung ding,” “wanted to buy food, to buy food.” He stole the moto because he was hungry. My boss tells me this a lot (at least, I think this is what he is telling me): most of his clients do not have criminal minds, “tchet o-kret.” Rather, they steal things because they want money to eat, to feed their families, or to buy some clothes.
The second defendant is more confident. He looks at my boss directly to tell his story, but still his hands shake. He is in prison because he got in a motorcycle accident; he made a small error while driving and injured someone. He seems angry. He’s been in prison for a couple of months now.
My boss gives them both his card and says, “muhn luey,” “free of charge.” They say, “baat, baat, bong, awkoon juhrahn,” “yes, brother, thank you very much,” and they each hold the card with both hands, staring intently at their lawyer’s name and number, wondering when their trial will take place.
People always ask me how I could want to defend a criminal. Some people, it’s true, have “tchet o-kret,” but even they deserve representation. And then there are “criminals” like this, prevalent in America as well as here in Cambodia: young kids, scared, confused, or angry, sitting in jail for months upon years for making one small mistake.