Stung Treng Province has had it rough. It was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War and was the stronghold for the Khmer Rouge up until they fell. We visited the province today and the effects of war are still evident: IBJ is the only means for poor prisoners in the province to access the legal rights they deserve.
Despite the great need for help, unfortunately IBJ Ratanikirri can only afford two Stung Treng trips a month. It’s only a two hour drive to Stung Treng from Banlung, but it’s treacherous. On the way there we crossed a bridge under construction. Large gaps in the bridge were covered by a couple of narrow pieces of plywood for cars to drive over. I’m not really sure how we made it across. As I write this, we’re driving in the car back to Banlung, and we are practically flying over a slick, muddy, bumpy road through heavy rain. We’re about to cross the Death Bridge again (I’ve decided to name it), and we just had to bribe a cop to let us over. Oh, Cambodia.
Despite the, um, interesting drive, it’s necessary. Ratanikirri Province has two “public defenders,” as America calls them, that provide free legal services to defendants. One of those attorneys is my boss at IBJ (the other works for a different NGO). 150,000 people live in Ratanikirri Province, and 280 people are in the Ratanikirri prison. Stung Treng Province, on the other hand, has no “public defenders,” with a population of 30,000. (I’m not sure about the number of people in the prison there.) So there are two attorneys for poor criminals in Ratanikirri and Stung Treng provinces, two attorneys over a population of 180,000.
Our Stung Treng visit was a flurry of meetings and client visits. We visited my boss’s friend, an investigator and legal advisor at ADHOC, another NGO. He refers prisoners’ families to IBJ. We then went to the court to discuss some upcoming cases with judges. We spent most of this time lobbying for earlier trial dates. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, judges often push back trial dates by six months at a time while the defendant, quite possibly innocent, waits around in prison. We proceeded from the court to visit one of my boss’s clients at the Stung Treng prison. He is from Vietnam and is charged with battery, a felony. He has been in prison for a few months now and really needs to get back to his family and job in Vietnam, but the investigative judge continues to push back his trial date.
After our prison visit with the aforementioned client, we proceeded to stop at two restaurants. The first, to meet with another client’s wife, mother, and small baby. The man has been in prison for seven months for drug distribution, and we’re coming back to Stung Treng on the 30th for his trial (our second monthly visit). Then, onward to the second restaurant, where we sat around a large table to eat rice, beef soup, and egg with two clients’ families. I watched my boss effortlessly interact with his clients, field their questions and encourage them that that the trials would be scheduled soon. Meanwhile, I struggled to ask questions in a mix of English and Khmer...At least I’m making progress.
Aside from lots of meetings, etc., I’ve been busy doing research on the Cambodian law system to help IBJ develop an e-learning program that will be used to train Khmer legal professionals. I’ll be sure to write a full entry on my research soon. In the meantime, you can check out the e-learning system at http://elearning.ibj.org/!