The Ratanakiri Provincial Court of First Instance.
I'm sitting in the courtroom and have just been chatting with 2 young male police officers, when they abruptly stand up because the judge has just walked in. I jump up too. I guess that she is in her thirties. This is a much more formal affair than the one I witnessed in Stung Treng Province. The judge reads something from the bench, the clerk stands and speaks, the prosecutor stands and speaks, and Mao Sary (the defense lawyer, my boss) stands and speaks. The judge talks again and I recognize the words ''k'nyom'' (I) and "Ratanakiri'' (our province). I think she just introduced herself. The accused, our client, stands and answers questions. I recognize the words ''baht'' (how males say yes) and ''Khmer'' (the majority ethnicity of Cambodia). I assume he just identified himself.
Before the trial, I was told that our client was drunk driving his moto and got into an altercation with the police after he was pulled over and one of the officers drove his moto away. He deeply offended the officer who stayed with him. There is the opinion that because one of the police officers is related to someone in the Provinicial Governor's Office, our client has been charged with 4 crimes due to government influence (a traffic violation and 3 criminal misdemeanors—false imprisonment, defamation, and insulting a public official). My boss thinks that our client should only have been fined and that the case should never have reached trial. Operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a somewhat minor traffic offense in Cambodia, is punishable by a fine of 25,000 to 1 million riel (~$6.25 - $ 250 USD) and/or 6 days to 6 months in prison. However, if our client is convicted of all 4 charges, he could be fined as much as 10 million riel (~$2,500 USD) and spend up to 3 years in jail. The two police officers I had been talking to before the trial both stand up and say ''baht'' (yes) when the judge addresses them. I think I've just been talking to the adversaries of our client. Oops.
I take stock of the room, which is smaller than the courtroom in Stung Treng Province, but less moldy. The judge seems much more interested in the matter at hand than the judges in Stung Treng. Perhaps she is eager to prove herself because of her age, or perhaps she simply has more enthusiasm. With sharp eyes, she carefully examines our client. I tune back into the words and I hear the court clerk pause and then say ''bee'' (two) before continuing to speak, so I guess that he's reading out the enumerated charges. This particular court clerk is sharply dressed every time I visit the courthouse. In Cambodia, being a court clerk is a profession in and of itself like being a judge or a lawyer. He wears a gold ring, a gold bracelet, and one of those red yarn bracelets that has something to do with Buddhism. He'll be a court clerk the rest of his life. Sary answers his phone. The young cops whisper to each other. One of them asks me for a piece of paper, so I rip one out of my notebook and pass it over. I don’t want any trouble with the police.
After the clerk stops talking, the judge starts questioning the client. It's an awe-inspiring sight to see her in action. She's tough as nails. Sometimes she whispers, but right now she is pointing her pen and yelling at our client. He stands defiantly. The client offers a retort, Sary tries to speak over him to reduce the damage, and the judge continues to look sour while talking very loudly and rapidly. I feel like this is my own personal episode of Cambodian Judge Judy. The cops are whispering to each other and seem happy. An older cop a few rows back is smiling from ear to ear, exposing two gold teeth. Now Sary is asking questions in a very low voice. The judge also asks questions in a very low voice. The decrescendo is jolting. The client shouts back an answer. The sudden increase in volume is just as unnerving as the decrease.
The prosecutor hasn't looked up once. His brow is furrowed. The clerk's face is zen while his hands are taking notes a mile a minute. Behind me, the old cop's phone rings. The prosecutor and clerk look up. It rings again and he sheepishly laughs, his exposed gold teeth reflecting light. I look around the walls and see US Aid posters describing the actors and their roles in a trial. Overhead, a single fan churns. It's been raining a lot, so it's actually a little cool today. In the back corner, a large hornet's nest dangles from some electrical wiring. It's red, just like all the dirt roads and the people on them outside.
Sary has his eyes on the accused. The judge swivels to her right to address the prosecutor, then swings back to continue to lay into our client, her face frozen in an expression of incredulity. She looks down and says something, and Sary rises from his chair and leans on his hands over his desk. I watch as he removes one foot from a flip flop and uses his toenails to scratch his opposite ankle. He questions our client. The prosecutor, clerk, and judge are all looking down while Sary speaks. The judge places her hand on her forehead and squints through her glasses at some papers in front of her. The rain outside starts to pound on the tin roof, and Sary and the client are yelling at each other in order to be heard over the din. The old cop behind me is also yelling over the rain to the young cops next to me.
I contemplate the amount of product in the curly section of hair in the prosecutor's comb over. It's very shiny, but could probably cover more scalp if it'd been flattened a little. Sary uses his robe to wipe his nose and sits down. The judge is looking down at a document and starts to ask questions, lifting her eyes to study the client when he answers. Her hands and forefingers are pressed into the shape of a triangle. Our client sounds very angry when he speaks. The rain stops. The judge starts to whisper something and then with a loud crescendo yells at the client and points at him again. He pauses, and then says something in a very meek voice. The judge hands the clerk a document open to a page with one paragraph highlighted in pink. The clerk stands and, presumably, reads the highlighted part. The judge speaks after the clerk sits back down. The client looks at Sary, who nods. The client very quietly says ''baht'' (yes). Then he sits down.
I think that the trial is over, but one of the young cops goes up to the right of the prosecutor's desk and the judge speaks to him. He stands perfectly straight with his hands in fists at his sides. The judge is talking to him in a normal volume. Our client is looking in his lap and picking at the skin on his hand. The old cop behind me is sitting on the edge of his seat, mouth hanging open. The cop looks at the client, but his eyes strangely flutter before they focus on him. There must be some deep-seated resentment there. The client looks away. The prosecutor's eyes are closed. He's very old, so I wonder if he's asleep. I hear a noise from one of Sary's phones. I look up and see him touching his iPhone.
The judge purses her lips and looks down. The room is quiet and a bird outside chirps. Her brow is deeply furrowed. The prosecutor opens his eyes and starts to question the young cop. I can barely hear him over the moto buzzing past the courthouse outside. The air smells like wet earth. The old cop behind me is enthralled. His crow's feet wrinkle and he strains his neck up to hear the prosecutor. Sary stacks and unstacks his phones. The judge flips open a copy of the Criminal Code peppered with neon place holders. Sary whispers a question to the clerk, who stops taking notes to answer him. The young cop sitting next to me mumbles an answer the prosecutor asked that gave the other cop pause. The prosecutor finishes.
The standing cop tries to sit down, but the judge tells him to stay put. Sary rises to ask his own questions. The cop looks defiant and annoyed and self-righteous. Sary just looks tired. He'd driven up from Phnom Penh at 1 AM (about an 8 hour drive without stops). The cop slips out of his military posture and starts waving his arms in response to Sary's line of questioning. The judge is looking at stuff on her desk. Sary's tone sounds skeptical of the cop's testimony. The cop looks annoyed. The judge starts to ask questions, too. She looks equally annoyed. Sary speaks and looks from the client to the judge. The cop chews on his lip and appears agitated. At one point he interrupts Sary with an objection. The judge has removed her glasses to better stare down the cop. More yelling ensues. The cop struggles to answer respectfully. I don't know what's going on, but it's quite exciting. The prosecutor's phone rings and he answers it.
The old cop lost his excited look when Sary started asking questions. Someone's phone rings. I turn around and see the old cop answer his phone. The judge has put back on her glasses, and is now talking in a clinical tone to the accused, who is now standing again. She starts to yell at him, but he says nothing. She talks some more. He sits down and peeks at his phone. The young cop sits down and the other one stands up. He seems a lot more sure of what he wants to say. He'd been writing stuff down on the piece of paper I gave to him, no doubt to organize his thoughts. Sary starts to question him. Someone's phone somewhere in the room is vibrating. Sary is no longer yelling. The accused stands again, and the judge talks quietly to him. She answers her phone, covers her mouth with a sheet of paper, and talks inaudibly and, almost, sweetly. She hangs up and starts yelling at the cop again. I look at my watch and realize it's been at least an hour and a half. Both young cops are now standing up and answering questions. The judge wrinkles her nose and looks at them skeptically while they speak.
The prosecutor makes his closing remarks while sitting, Sary makes his while standing. The accused is standing so still through it all, you'd think he was a statue. A phone vibrates. A wasp flies by my face. A dog barks outside. Everyone in the front looks down at their desks while Sary talks. Another phone vibrates. The judge talks. It's been more than 2 hours now. Sary takes off his robe, the prosecutor leaves the room, and the accused and the young cops put their thumb prints on the clerk's notes. Sary tells me the judge said she'll have her verdict in 3 days. He shows me on his phone that he has 20 missed calls. His clients are the poorest of the poor, and they are desperate for his help. Their family members often call for reassurance and updates. I really admire him. He could be making a lot more money if he were a private lawyer down in Phnom Penh, but instead he helps indigent prisoners out in this remote province.