The provicinal courthouse in Stung Treng.
Mao Sary, the defense lawyer, and Phon Sophoes, his assistant, pick me up from my hotel at 6:30 AM to drive 2 hours to Stung Treng for a trial in the provincial courthouse. Our client is accused of violent theft, a felony. Sophoes needs to go talk to a different client at the prison during the trial, so I am without a translator. However, I make a lot of observations:
The accused is barefoot and handcuffed when he shuffles in. He is wearing orange. He stands behind his little wooden fence, and the police officer removes his cuffs and sits on the bench behind him. There are three judges—two middle-aged men and one old woman. They wear maroon robes with black trim and white ties. The male judge on the left wears glasses and the male judge in the middle sports a distinctive mole on his temple. The female judge speaks a little English and spoke with me the last time I was in Stung Treng, maybe a week or two ago. She came across as a very kind person.
Mao Sary, the defense attorney, whispers on his phone at his desk. He wears a black robe with a white tie. He has a huge stack of photocopied papers. The middle judge starts talking while the court clerk, in a bright purple robe, and the prosecutor, in a maroon robe like the judges, make their way to their seats. The clerk stands up and starts reading something, but I can't hear her over Sary's whispering. The courtroom's floor is made of tile and the ceiling is high. Someone has just turned on the four ceiling fans and they spring to life. The long, bare light bulbs flicker on after a bit. It smells like old books in here. Everyone is looking down and writing while the clerk speaks, except for Sary and the police officer. The judge in the middle plays with the three cellphones he has stacked up in front of him. He puts the phones down when the clerk sits down. He asks the accused questions and manages to look both skeptical and bored during the responses.
The accused seems so small with his quiet voice. The orange shirt and pants are much too big for him. The police office looks bored and starts hitting his legs with his fists. Sary is reading a document while the female judge asks the accused questions. Sary's reading out loud. I'm not sure he's paying attention, but maybe he's multi-tasking. The female judge has her thumb and forefinger in a "V'' on her chin in deep thought. She also looks skeptical, but doesn't seem as perturbed as the judge in the middle, who is currently examining his fingernails. The other male judge in glasses on the left looks away from me every time I look up from my notebook…I'm not sure if he is paying attention either.
The prosecutor seems to be paying attention. She has a water bottle on her desk that looks like it is filled with chia seeds. She also has an iPad. The female judge is now squinting through her glasses at her cell phone. Suddenly, all of the judges turn a page in a packet simultaneously. I guess this is a little more organized than it appears. The clerk stands and speaks again. When she sits, the central judge makes a joke and Sary and the prosecutor both laugh. There's a pause, and then the prosecutor starts to ask the accused questions from her seat. Sary answers his phone and covers the receiver with his hand while he talks. He gets another phone call on his other cell phone, but lets it vibrate until it reaches voice mail while he stands and ask the accused questions.
The police office looks like he's struggling to stay awake. Now he's leaning over the front of the bench and rubbing his face. The judge in the middle and the female judge whisper to each other. The judge in glasses is flipping through a dog-eared copy of Cambodia's Criminal Code. The judge in the middle produces an iPad and yells for a court clerk to come do something on it. The prosecutor is now looking at her iPad, too. Sary is looking at his iPhone. The judge with glasses looks at me. Sary is now talking on his phone again. The clerk stands and speaks while the female judge writes, the judge in the middle has a loud conversation with Sary, and the judge in glasses stares into space.
The police officer has stopped rubbing his eyes and has taken up hitting his legs again while staring at the floor. Now he picks up the handcuffs and starts playing with them. The clerk stops speaking and the accused shifts his weight for the first time since the trial began. The female judge and the middle judge start asking questions again. The judge in glasses and the prosecutor are looking at me. Sary has answered his phone again. The prosecutor says a few things then immediately starts swiping her iPad. Sary stands up and starts speaking. I realize these must be his closing remarks because he's trying to make eye contact with the middle judge, but the judge is looking down at his desk like everyone else except the judge in glasses, who is looking outside the open door. Abruptly, the judges stand up and leave after the middle judge barks out a comment. No one stands when they leave.
The accused is handcuffed and then given ink to put his thumbprint on the notes the clerk was taking the whole time. Sary tells me the judges will make a decision in 15 minutes. He asks me what I thought about the trial. I say that I'm surprised it was so casual. He laughs and says, "A trial is a simple thing!''
Sary was successful in having the charge—violent theft (5-10 years)—dropped to intentional violence (2 years). The victim did not show up for the trial, which made the judges think that the robbery claim was unfounded. I look out the door and am startled to watch the police officer sling an AK-47 across his chest. He gets on his moto and our client hops on the back and is whisked away to serve his sentence.
Oh, and of course I had my picture taken from the judges' bench!