The story begins here. I am on an airplane flying to a beautiful country where, according to the woman sitting across the aisle, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death after disease, infection, and land mines. I think back to last summer when I visited Siem Reap on holiday to see the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat (made famous in the West by the Tomb Raider movie) and recall entire families perched atop single motorbikes sans helmets. I nod knowingly.
Cambodia is a heart-wrenching and beautiful country. From the terrors of the Khmer Rouge to the on-going struggles of upholding democracy, Cambodia has had more than its fair share of tribulations. For the next 12 weeks, I will join the thousands of foreigners before me compelled to assist this chaotic and charming place. My summer internship is with International Bridges to Justice. IBJ is an innovative non-profit that supports rule of law and the justice system in Cambodia and around the world. By educating the public and strengthening the ability of criminal defenders to advocate for what, in fact, are human rights laws already on the books, IBJ endorses a sustainable system of self-sufficient justice.
The presumption of guilt and belief in the necessity of torture to obtain testimony in some Cambodian prisons are, unfortunately, persistent vestiges of the method of criminal investigation notoriously utilized by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. IBJ has made tremendous strides in reaching out to government officials, judges, and police in reshaping attitudes in step with the country’s constitution. But the need to support and assist criminal defenders remains a crucial part of IBJ’s work in eradicating torture and abuse of prisoners. I will soon meet Mao Sary, the Legal Fellow for IBJ in the rural province of Ratanakiri in the northeast corner of Cambodia bordering Laos and Vietnam. Mr. Sary is the only permanent legal aid attorney in the entire region, which is home to more than a dozen distinct indigenous communities.
I vaguely recall reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in high school, and fanciful notions of a jungle trek worthy of literary infamy enter my mind thinking of the journey to Ratanakiri. My mind wonders and anticipates what role I, an American law student, will play in the Cambodian justice system in the coming months. The flight is long, but my body relaxes, relieved that 10 months of grueling study are now over. I am extremely grateful for the tremendous generosity of John and Brenda Scanelli and their undying passion for international aid work that is making this entire experience possible. Thank you! I am also grateful to Professor Christie Warren for interviewing me and recommending me for this position. Looking out the airplane window at the small patch of blue, I feel the sort of tingly anticipation that wakes a kid up in the wee hours of Christmas morning. I am so excited to work toward the noble goal of leveling the legal playing field. Twelve weeks stretch out in front of me ripe with possibility. How will the story progress?