"If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.''
– Francis Bacon
The lunch meeting is in a vegetarian and raw food café called ARTillery in Phnom Penh. To my left is Brian Rohan, the Special Projects Director of IBJ who works in International Bridges to Justice's Geneva office. Brian, a friendly and good-natured man from the US, worked in Cambodia for many years for the American Bar Association before joining the Geneva office, so he knows the lay of the land. In front of me is Jeanne Salomé, a Program Officer at the Cambodia office. Jeanne, a woman very dedicated to human rights from France, had worked in IBJ's Geneva office before moving to Cambodia, so she knows the inner workings of IBJ from its highest authority. The topic of conversation is thought-provoking—what is the future of the legal system in Cambodia? What is the future of IBJ?
IBJ's core mission is to eliminate investigative torture in prisons around the world by providing access to legal aid lawyers to the accused at the earliest time possible in the lifespan of their case. By operating on both a national scale, by getting the government involved in roundtable discussions, and at the local level, by maintaining 8 offices of legal aid lawyers covering 20 out of 25 provinces in Cambodia, IBJ has received recognition from the Ministry of Justice, the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and provincial judges and prosecutors as filling an important gap in the overall scheme of Cambodia's justice system.
On the books, Cambodian law already demands that the accused in cases involving a felony or a juvenile have legal representation (Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 2, Section 1, Article 301), but the government's budget for legal aid in past years has only been $50,000 USD, and its model of legal aid has not proven effective. IBJ has and continues to increase the visibility of and respect for defenders among justice stakeholders. The idea is to create a legal culture in which the use of a public defender is seen as both an imperative and obvious custom. Eventually (hopefully), the Cambodian government will take upon itself the duty to provide a national system of free legal aid. In fact, the government increased the national budget for legal aid last year to $75,000 USD from $50,000 USD. There are multiple NGOs providing free legal aid in Cambodia, but most focus their efforts on very specific types of cases and clients, such as juveniles. IBJ has a broader goal of creating a model of quality, cost-efficient legal aid for all indigent prisoners that can be duplicated in scale in every province across the entire country.
IBJ takes great efforts to publicize its free legal services so that indigent prisoners can request representation as soon as possible. The police, prosecutors and judges are less likely to torture or bribe a prisoner if he or she has a lawyer. Recently, however, a report published by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and discussed on the Phnom Penh Post concludes that despite IBJ's strides in increasing government acceptance of the need for legal aid lawyers, the problem of torture during the arrest and detention of prisoners in the initial stages of investigation persists. While the report is not good news, it is not an indicator that IBJ is ineffective. On the contrary, once a client is represented by IBJ, they are unlikely to be tortured or bribed. The problem is that many Cambodians do not know their legal rights and do not ask for a lawyer when they are arrested. Police and prosecutors and judges are also reluctant to tell the accused about their right to a lawyer, because then they lose their chance to bribe them. Police are underpaid in Cambodia, and most rely on bribes to make ends meet.
Another issue is that IBJ does not have the capacity to represent everyone. For example, my office in Banlung City in Ratanakiri Province has one lawyer who represents clients from both Ratanakiri Province and the neighboring Stung Treng Province. In these 2 provinces, there are 2 prisons where more than 400 prisoners live. There are only 3 lawyers between all of the prisoners, and 2 of them are private lawyers. I've been to both prisons, and their conditions would be considered torture by American standards. I recently talked to one client who was acquitted in May. He told me that 35 people slept in his room at night, and that they had to spoon with each other to all fit on the ground. I had just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughter-House Five, and immediately thought about when the protagonist of the novel, a prisoner-of-war during WWII, had to spoon with other prisoners in a train car. That scene came from Vonnegut's own experience as a POW during WWII. The client who spoke with me was released from prison in May 2014.
IBJ, now more than ever, feels it is imperative to continue forward with its work. Other NGOs involved in legal aid are finishing up their projects, and their attorneys are moving to private practice. However, the number of prisoners continues to soar. Most importantly, police brutality and the use of torture is still a problem during arrests and initial investigations. Brian gives me an assignment—create a working draft of a concept note describing all of IBJ's current activities, their logistics, future goals, and potential issues. IBJ constantly self-evaluates its efforts to ensure it is putting its energy in the correct direction.
I ask Brian, point-blank, why the government would ever start to offer a service for free that an NGO is already providing for them? He chuckles and says I sound like a representative of the government. I sense some frustration with the problem from Jeanne when she emphasizes that it should be a public service. I apologize for being negative, but ask how IBJ plans to overcome what I see as the hugest hurdle for its goal. Brian tells me about meetings he recently had with the president of the BAKC and the MOJ. They are keen to work with us, he said. Our roundtable discussions and efforts to work with the government as opposed to outside of it have given us a great edge in changing the overall opinion of the necessity of legal aid. I take notes of everything he says and then read it back to him when he's finished. He makes some corrections, adds some information, and I run it by him again. Brian treats us to lunch.
Back at the office, Jeanne smiles to me and says, "You are going to help us reform the Cambodian legal system." My heart skips a beat, I believe it! I hold onto my optimism and enthusiasm and quickly type up a first draft.