On Friday June 18th I accompanied Mr. Ouk Vandeth, IBJ Fellow and Country Mananger, to a Prison visit in Koh Kong province. We met our Phnom Penh office at 6 a.m. and started our 6 hour drive to the province in Mr. Vandeth’s SUV. Cambodia as a whole is very flat and the land surrounding it’s roads from city to city are extremely developed. This route however, was completely different. We drove through the first real forests and mountains that I had encountered. The highlight was stopping at a shrine on a mountain pass. There were great panoramic views and monkeys scavenging for food, Vandeth prayed at the shrine as I took in the sights. The mountain forests soon gave way to river lands and then the ocean as we arrived at Koh Kong. We stopped first at the courthouse where Mr. Vandeth spoke with a few of the local judges about cases he had coming, grabbed some lunch, and then drove out to the prison.
The prison was located at the end of a long dirt road that led to it and a boardering pagoda. It was the one prison for all of Koh Kong province and was mixed sex, although it seemed that the majority of inmates that I saw were male. The prison consisted of an outer barbed wire fence and and inner compound with glass shards coating the top of the walls. The prisoners wore blue and orange uniforms some were on work details putting up new buildings or planing flowers or trees,while others walking around the large common area in the central compound. The security was much more relaxed than I imagine, I only saw one armed guard, and the gates to prison remained open the entire time that I was there. The environment was all in all much better than I thought it would be. With Mr. Vandeth stating afterwards that he hadn’t heard of physical or sexual assaults ever happening in the prison. My perspective was very limited; we never entered the primary enclosure nor did we see any cells which are supposed to be notoriously crowded.
The vast majority of time spent in prison was sitting with Mr. Vandeth in a visiting room built into the wall of the prison. We sat on the outside and on the other side across a barred window of chicken-wire we met and gave counsel to his clients. These interviews were carried out in Khmer, but Mr. Vandeth translated most of what was said. He met first with a woman in her mid thirties who had been convicted of murder; he had just finished her appeal and was informing her that the judges’ verdict should come down in late July. He then met with an older gentleman and informed him that his appeal had come down against him and when informed that he still wanted to pursue his appeal informed him that IBJ would continue to take the case to the supreme court. His longest meeting was with two men who were convicted of murder in 2013, despite the fact the alleged murder victim was found alive and presented at trial. There were three men convicted on murder and they were tortured until one them broke and confessed to the murder and implicated the other two. There story can be seen here
http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/supposed-murder-victim-returns-work-abroad Mr. Vandeth is now preparing his appeal to the supreme court to try to get the murder charges and the coerced confessions dropped.
After leaving the Prison we went to speak with a relative of Vandeth’s female client and updated him on the progress and how she was doing. we then went on a hike through a mangrove forest on the bay ending in a tower with a pretty spectacular view of the surrounding area. That evening we met up with an aunt and uncle of one of the young men who were convicted of murder and updated them as well over dinner on the bay. It was pretty spectacular to see Mr. Vandeth, who is managing the entire IBJ presence in Cambodia, go above and beyond his duties and give so much time to his clients and their families. We woke up the next morning stopped by the prison again to finalize some changes he had made the night before and get signatures and then drove the six hours back to Phnom Penh.