The next day we traveled to Ban Nork village to speak with a previous client. The road to Ban Nork was essentially a lake. Our brave taxi driver drove onward until, after an hour of teeth-gritting bumps and soon-to-be bruises, we pulled up to a small shack.
One of the better parts of the road...
The client we visited was an 18 year old kid that stole a cell phone and car battery with his friend in January of 2010. They took the items because they wanted to buy new clothes for the Khmer new year. They were apprehended by the police soon after and charged with robbery, a felony.
Why a felony for such a petty crime, you ask? In Cambodia, the definition of robbery is “any person who steals OR attempts to steal; property from another person; the theft is accompanied by force (whether or not a weapon is used or the victim sustains injury) OR the theft is committed by several persons OR the theft is committed by breaking and entering.” The minimum sentence is five years (Article 34 of the Cambodian Penal Code (CPC)). Theft is the misdemeanor counterpart to robbery. Theft is “any person who steals OR attempts to steal; the property of a natural person OR the property of an artificial person.” The sentence for theft is only six months to five years (Article 43 of the CPC). As you can see, the co-operation of several persons in stealing property is sufficient to elevate simple theft to the crime of robbery. So in this case, merely because the defendant and his friend stole the cell phone and battery collaboratively, they were charged with a felony.
Almost one year later, the two friends were still sitting in jail waiting for a trial. IBJ took the case. They finally got a trial in January of 2011 and the attorney was able to plead the charge down to theft. The friends were charged with the misdemeanor rather than the felony and sentenced to twelve months of imprisonment for time served.
Stories like this are very typical for Cambodia. Mandatory pre-trial for felony charges is six months, and if the judge decides there isn't enough evidence, he can extend the pre-trial sentence six months more, and then six months more after that. For a misdemeanor offense, pre-trial is a mandatory four months, which can also be extended by a judge. Felony cases in particular tend to be lengthened because every defendant charged with a felony must be represented and public lawyers in Cambodia are extremely scarce (the government spends less than $50K/yr. on the program); so there might be plenty of evidence but pre-trial will be extended merely because there isn't a lawyer available. On top of all of this, the laws are often poorly written and vague, as we’ve seen demonstrated by the robbery/theft distinction. There are still many people sitting in overcrowded jails awaiting their trials with few lawyers to argue their cases.
Following are some pictures of the client and his family:
I finally get to move up to Ratanikiri province on Friday! I can’t wait! The polluted air and heavy traffic of Phnom Penh is really starting to wear on me. Until then!