First, some updates on life in Battambang. I've found an apartment! After a few weeks of backpacker-style living I've settled into a room above a French cafe/art gallery called Choco L'Art, where a few expats and some foreigners who work for a local NGO also live. No AC, but free wifi and utilities, plus 24/7 access to the kitchen (which means I've been eating quite a few Nutella crepes and drinking about as much ginger ale as I can get my hands on). I've started to become close with Ny, a Khmai woman who works in the kitchen, so it is nice to have a friend in the building as well. Besides that, I've also bought a bike - so no more tuk-tuks for me, and I have started taking Khmai classes (hence the post title which fittingly [hopefully] means, "I'm Erika and I Like to Eat Nutella")!
This past week was pretty busy at the office. I finished up writing my success story (full story on IBJ's Blog
), went to three separate trials, and sat in on a few different meetings with NGO leaders and IBJ Program Officers. Trials in Battambang are very different from what we experience or watch on T.V. in the U.S. At the first trial I went to, the defendants were charged with a few separate charges revolving around drug sales (this is very common in our province as we share a border with Thailand and are only a six hour drive away from Bangkok). Odoum (the Cambodian intern here), translated and explained the proceedings to me throughout the trial, and Sothea (the lawyer) debriefed me on everything had happened after the rather short, one-hour trial. Although there had been three defendants appearing before the three judges (felony charges are tried by three judges, misdemeanors by one), only one person had been our client as the other two defendants had secured private lawyers (of which there are only around six in the whole town). I found this pretty troubling, as the judges only questioned each defendant for about fifteen minutes, and the separate defendants were facing some very different charges. Sothea also informed me that out client has been in pre-trial detention for 21 months
- significantly beyond the statutory limit of six months. Excessive pre-trial detention in Cambodia is rampant - and both of the other clients whose trials I went to that week had been held past the limit. As one of IBJ's goal is to eliminate this problem, most of the clients IBJ works with are current prisoners who have been detained for a few months already. Sothea explained a few other differences to me, like that the judges, Prosecutor and court clerk wear purple robes while the lawyers also wear robes, but black ones and I noticed that trials are more casual overall - as judges often take cell phone calls and guards can be seen on their cell phones sitting in the back with visitors.
We also had two meetings - one with local NGO leaders and another with IBJ's own program officers who were making some monitoring trips out to the provinces. In the first, representatives from the Advocacy Office of LAC (Legal Aid Cambodia - an organization which we work closely with) and the UN's OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) came to our office to discuss the lack of access NGO workers have to the prisons given the current prison chief's strict policies and possible solutions for this problem. In the coming months, they plan to to create a document outlining their arguments for access, which they will present to the Prosecutor in the hopes that he can work with the prison chief to increase access. During the second meeting of the week, my boss Jeanne and a few other officers from the Phnom Penh office came to check in with Sothea and assess the progress made and issues faced in our office. I was asked to take notes and produce a brief for Jeanne to be able to reference, and listened as Sothea discussed what I had been observing for the past few weeks - relationships with clerks, the Prosecutor, and judges; problems faced when interviewing clients, investigating cases, and traveling to rural areas to conduct legal awareness campaigns; successes with difficult cases, torture victims, and NGO meetings (just to list a few).
We had another holiday here in Cambodia this past week (the Queen Mother's Birthday), and as it would be the last one for awhile, Brian, Rosemary, the two other IBJ interns (Jake and Jon), and I made the trek to Sihanoukville - a destination beach town four hours south of Phnom Penh. We spent a few days in the sun, relaxed, and had a nice vacation before heading up to Phnom Penh for a night where we ate at a "Dine in the Dark" restaurant. This was my first time visiting such a restaurant, where you eat a three course meal in complete darkness and spend most of the time trying to figure out what in the world you were eating (don't worry - you pick a category of food in the purple-lit area downstairs first). Even though I was convinced our main course was pork when it turned out to be chicken, the food was wonderful and the restaurant serves a great cause as it hires Cambodian people who are blind and having trouble finding work. All in all this trip was a great way to round out a busy week!