Two weeks ago I traveled to Kandal province, just 15 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, to interview a former IBJ client whom I'll call Kosal. (As with all IBJ clients whose image I'll post, he gave me permission to use his photo.) Since the death of his parents when he was a child, Kosal has lived in a small hut with his grandmother, aunt, and sister. At the time of his arrest he was only nineteen years old, working as a motordup (motorbike) driver. The ten thousand riel ($2.50) he earned per day combined with his uncle's similar wage provided the family's only support. Around 9 PM on November 24, 2012, Kosal was happy to receive a call on his cell phone from a man, whom I'll call Dara, looking for a ride. Kosal thought that he would earn some extra cash that night, but instead, the ride would cost him the next five months in Kandal prison’s pre-trial detention.
Before that night, Kosal had driven Dara only two times. As all motordup drivers do, he had given him his phone number in order to secure future patronage. Unfortunately, Kosal neither knew that Dara was a drug dealer, nor that on that night he was calling for a ride to pick up cocaine. Kosal drove to a bridge where Dara got off and told him to wait for an hour. When Dara came back they continued driving and passed a group of policemen parked at a gas station. Evidently, one policeman recognized Dara as a prior drug suspect and demanded to search their belongings. He found the cocaine in Dara’s bag and arrested both driver and passenger.
The police interrogated Kosal at the district station for two days. They did not physically abuse him, but they intimidated him by threateningly turning an electroshock device on and off. Kosal maintained his innocence throughout, but the police, nevertheless, sent him to pre-trial detention. When Kosal did not return that night his family was very concerned. In fact, an entire week passed before the family was officially informed about Kosal’s whereabouts. He was locked up in a twelve-by-fifteen-foot cell with thirty-four other prisoners. The guards were kind to him, but, as one might imagine, the living conditions were difficult to bear.
The prosecutor charged Kosal as an accomplice in drug distribution. Under Article 29 of the Cambodian Criminal Code anyone charged as an accomplice in a crime faces an equally severe penalty as the main perpetrator. Thus, despite the fact that Kosal was not in possession of any drugs and persistently asserted his innocence, he would serve the same five-year sentence, if convicted, as his drug-peddling passenger.
Kosal waited three months without knowing the status of his case. Although some of the prison officials and other prisoners mentioned IBJ's free legal representation, he did not know how to contact a lawyer. Worse, no one in authority could tell him when he would have his day in court. Every day passed in loneliness and uncertainty. His only comforts were bi-monthly visits from his family, who brought him whatever extra food they could afford. On February 20, 2013, Ms. Hok Meng Eam, one of the four IBJ lawyers in Phnom Penh, traveled the twelve kilometers outside of the capital to visit Kandal Prison and the guards told her about Kosal. She offered him free legal representation and he gratefully accepted.
Each IBJ lawyer takes on ten to twenty cases per month. Around half of those cases come from community referrals, which is why an essential part of IBJ’s mission is simply spreading the word among Cambodians about the services it offers. Other cases are referred by court officials and partner NGOs. Occasionally, as in Kosal’s case, IBJ lawyers find new clients on routine visits to the prisons in their territory. Each of the Phnom Penh lawyers visits one of the three nearby prisons at least twice a month and asks the prison officials to show them the accused who want a lawyer, but cannot afford one. IBJ lawyers try to offer their services to every accused person in need of free counsel, but they depend on the prison officials to be forthcoming; also, of course, the lawyers cannot take on as many cases as they would like.
Kosal’s trial finally took place on May 2, 2013. Ms. Eam presented a strong case that he was not guilty. The police had found no drugs on him, and, even more compelling, Dara confessed that Kosal had been completely unaware of his involvement with drugs. Although the judge was suspicious that Dara was only trying to protect Kosal, Ms. Eam proved that the two men were separated during their detention and it was unlikely that they had communicated with each other. Furthermore, she emphasized Kosal’s previously clean criminal record, calm temperament, and faithful support of his family. For one hour, Kosal waited nervously while the judge listened to the lawyers’ arguments. His family members, watching the trial from the back of the courtroom, were equally anxious. Finally, the judge acquitted Kosal and he was released from the prison that day.
Obviously, his family was delighted to have him home. They could not afford a celebration dinner, but they threw rice out on the front steps of their house, a traditional Cambodian thanksgiving ritual which, I'm told, is believed to tempt rice-starved evil spirits out of the house to feed on the offering. Today, Kosal earns fifteen thousand riel ($3.75) per day transporting textile material. Unfortunately, the universal problem of discrimination against ex-prisoners also plagues him and some people in his village consider him the stereotypical troubled orphan. But, these are the minority of villagers, and even they were surprised that he was out of prison in what, unfortunately for the accused in Cambodia, was a comparatively short time. When other villagers inquire about the relative brevity of his stay in pre-trial detention, Kosal and his aunt enthusiastically spread the word about IBJ lawyers, so that others accused in the future will not be in the same position as Kosal before his arrest: knowing nothing about his rights under the law, or the assistance offered by IBJ.
I truly enjoyed spending the morning with Kosal and his family and they were very welcoming toward me and the two other IBJ staff members who were translating for me. Later that week we took a bus eight hours north with the entire IBJ team from all over the country for a company retreat in Siem Reap. More on that next time!