Working in Ratanikiri has given me the opportunity to interview a lot of clients and write case studies and success stories for grant-writing purposes. Because Ratanikiri is one of IBJ’s newer offices in the country, it receives a smaller budget. My boss has been very motivated to give me plenty of stories to write because he wants to demonstrate the work he’s doing in the province and expand the program. I want to quickly summarize a few of our more interesting client stories in this entry; I think each of them gives a unique perspective on the Cambodian legal system. These are shorter versions of the actual stories so some details are altered for sensibility’s sake. All names are changed, per usual.
In 2002 Tim and Tom bought four hectares of land from Jerry in exchange for one kilo of gold, the equivalent of about 30 dollars. They grew cashew trees on the land. In a few years they decided to cut down some of the trees to make way for a different crop. Right afterward the price of cashews sharply increased, raising the value of the land. One of Tim and Tom’s neighbors, Johnny, noticed the sudden profitability of the land and filed a complaint with the court. In his complaint he claimed that Tim and Tom’s land was actually his. He maintained that the land was sold to him by Jerry in exchange for eight piglets. Tim and Tom received a judgment letter soon afterward notifying them that they had been convicted in their absence of property destruction, carrying a two year prison sentence and fine of one million riel (250 dollars).
IBJ helped get Tim and Tom get a second trial scheduled. The two men were surprised at the trial when they were actually allowed to speak. They were disenchanted by Khmer legal procedure after receiving the letter and thought that their story would remain unheard. They were even more impressed when all summoned witnesses came to the trial and testified in their favor. After Tim and Tom were actually allowed a fair trial, their case was acquitted.
Jed, Will and Bill grew up on the same street as best friends. They went to school together, played together, ate together. Twenty years later, they committed a crime together. Jed worked for Telefone, a cell phone company in Banlung. Will and Bill both worked as independent cell card salesmen. In Cambodia, most people do not use cellular phone plans; rather they buy money for their phones in the form of cell phone cards. It is similar to the pay-as-you-go plan in America.
Jed, Will and Bill held these jobs while attending university, which can be very expensive, and Will and Bill began to have money troubles. Will and Bill came up with a plan to make some quick money. They asked their best friend Jed if he could lend them $65,000 in cell phone cards from Telefone. The boys would borrow the cell phone cards at the beginning of the month, sell them for a profit, and then return the cards at the end of the month before Jed’s boss noticed they were missing.
Jed’s boss did notice the cards were missing, and a warrant was soon put out for the boys’ arrest. At this time Will had in his possession about $45,000 of the money and Bill had $20,000. Will panicked and quickly ran to the bank to transfer the money to Telefone’s account. In his hurry he forgot to document the transfer properly. Bill ran away, and no one has seen him since.
After Jed and Will were arrested, Telefone sued the two men for the full $65,000 even though Will already paid back $45,000. After the boys spent five months in jail, they heard about IBJ. After a few meetings the IBJ lawyer was able to find one invoice and one witness to specify that the $45,000 transfer actually occurred. At the trial the boys were convicted to pay back only the $20,000 that Bill ran away with, and they were credited for the five months of time served in jail.
Fred is indigenous Krung and lives in a small village where his family farms one hectare. He has always been poor. Fred served in the Army for almost ten years, but after he finished his tour he was left penniless and jobless. He has not been able to find a job since then.
One day Fred noticed a large patch of unused land close to his village. He was not aware of the legal procedure for obtaining the rights to the land, but he decided to ask the village heads for permission to farm it. He obtained authorization from the village and he and his family cut down all of the trees on the land over an 11-day period. As soon as the trees had been cut, the village heads filed a complaint with the court accusing Fred of destroying forestry land which carries a ten year minimum sentence. The village heads wanted to use the cleared land for themselves to farm. Confused and angry, Fred was arrested and taken to the prison.
Fred’s family came to IBJ to see what could be done. Preliminary investigations were conducted and the attorney soon discovered that the land where Fred cut the trees was not actually classified as forested land. In reality it was classified as private land, so that Fred’s act was not a crime at all. After two months in prison with a ten-year-minimum sentence hanging over his head, Fred was sent home to his family.
Sarah and Matt live in a small village outside of Banlung city with Tyler, their son. Matt was a moto driver and Sarah sold vegetables at the market. Last year their vegetable business began to suffer and Matt had a difficult time finding work. Sarah and her son Tyler made a plan to get some easy money, desperate enough that they decided to steal jewelry from the market. Tyler enlisted the help of a few of his friends, and they broke into the market at night to steal a few necklaces and rings.
Matt noticed that his wife and son suddenly seemed to have more money, but they told him that they had gotten lucky with a few small business deals. He did not think anything of it until a few months later when he found one of the rings in their home. Matt immediately confronted Sarah and she told him she could not remember where she got it. Matt noticed that the ring was very valuable and his family was still aching for money, so he drove to the market to sell the ring. Coincidentally the storekeeper at the market immediately recognized the piece of jewelry. She whispered to her friend to call the police and Matt was arrested.
This story is not yet a success, and is still in progress. IBJ is advocating for Matt to have a trial date set soon so he can get back to his moto business, but the overloaded and inefficient court continues to avoid scheduling a solid date.
There are thousands of stories like these in Cambodia but unfortunately most people are not providential enough to find a lawyer. Most are innocent or undeserving of the overly-harsh sentences prescribed by Cambodian law, but they remain behind bars, waiting for some sort of justice.