William and Mary Law School

We visit the prison on Wednesday and the courthouse on Thursday.

The attorney, Mao Sary, his assistant, Sophoes, and I pile in the car to go talk to some clients.  The attorney drives us to the outskirts of town to Ratanakiri's provincial prison in his Toyota Land Cruiser.  The name "LAND CRUISER" is embossed across the side of the vehicle.  The office building of the facility is a long, low-slung beige affair set back from the road several yards behind a tall wrought-iron fence.  A flagpole topped with a Cambodian flag stands in the middle of the dusty courtyard.  Behind the main building rise two towering parallel barbed wire fences.  I'm surprised to see the metal gate to the courtyard open and prisoners in blue uniforms halfheartedly hoeing in the space between the fences.

 prison

Their blue uniforms appear to be pajamas rather than anything else.  The attorney, his assistant, and I generate a lot of stares.  The prisoners probably recognize the attorney and his assistant (considering most, if not all, of them are the attorney's clients), but I might be a bit of an unusual guest here.  We are met by the prison warden, a small bulldog of a man with ramrod straight posture.  He has been at this post for 3 or 4 months, ever since the former warden was reassigned to a new government job after the 3rd prison break under his supervision brought the number of escaped prisoners up to 7.  The story makes me think of the 1973 movie Papillon and all the photocopies of that novel plus many others that street sellers hawk around Southeast Asia.  The selection of titles are limited to those that are popular with the backpacker set, so they are typically about travel or escape or finding oneself.  I resolve to read Papillon at some point.

We follow the prison warden toward his office.  A woman in pink flannel pajamas emerges from the darkened doorway blinking rapidly in the sunlight, roused from her slumber to accommodate the current visitors.  Inside, a prison guard trips over himself to quickly fold a trundle bed.  Immediately across from the doorway is an altar, the same kind I've seen at restaurants and shops all over Cambodia.  Some offerings of fruit and rice and drinks sit in front.  To my right, a long conference table of gleaming lacquered wood stretches across the room, leading up to the warden's desk.  All of the chairs are small except his.  Important people at important events look down on us with stern faces from a row of gigantic gold frames tucked in line below the gold molding of the tray ceiling.   A neglected altar perched on top of a glass display case behind the warden's desk bears crusty-looking offerings.  To the left, pictures of the pale-faced king, his mother, and father hang next to a Cambodian flag.

The warden's uniform is crisp and well-tailored.  His skin is tanned and his hair is a glistening gel-filled jet black, but his demeanor suggests he's seen more years than the color of his hair lets on.  The fabric of the uniform across his chest sags and threatens to tear under the weight of several heavy gold pins.  He plays with the gold and ruby rings on his fingers.  His manner is very attentive.  He sits in his chair, leans up on the desk with crossed arms, and sizes me up.  He points at me and says something in Khmer.  Sophpoes tells me that he said I was pretty.  I dip my head a little, smile, and say ''a'kun'' which means thank you.  We sit at the conference table in the seats closest to him.  The entire meeting has the feel of an impromptu ceremony, awkward in its attempt at solemnity. 

There's a bit of an uncomfortable silent moment when I stand to shake the warden's hand after the attorney introduces him to me (again).  The warden touches his opposite arm to the arm he uses to shake my hand, a sign of respect in much of Asia while passing or accepting things.  Sophoes asks me if I want to tell him anything.  I had no idea I would need to say anything, but I tell him Sohpoes to tell the warden that I am here as a student and an observer and I thank him for letting me see the prison and I hope I'm not a burden.  Sophoes looks panicked.  He asks me to say it again.  I do, more slowly.  He looks at the table for a moment, looks up, clears his throat, and says something to the warden, who nods.  I have no idea what has been communicated to him, but he seems to approve.  I am happy that they want to make such a good impression on me, but I wish more had been explained to me in advance about how to act and what to say.  (I will find out several days later that physical contact between men and women in public is highly unusual, which will explain the awkward moment when I shook his hand.)

We leave the warden in his office and walk single-file to the open gate of the prison yard.  It's dusty and hot.  Young boys in blue uniforms study us carefully from beneath neon baseball caps graffitied with random English words.  A few prison guards who are indistinguishable from the prisoners except for their clothes sit in the shade.  Everyone seems to move in slow motion, except for one of the more rotund inmates who is laughing and joking.  I ask if there are any women prisoners, and Sohpoes points to the closest building and says that it is where the women sleep.  He also tells me that there are about 200 prisoners from all across Ratanakiri Province here, a blue uniform signifies that a prisoner's judgment has been rendered, and a yellow uniform means an inmate is waiting for his or her trial.  I look around and only see blue.  There are two small wooden rooms and we go into one.  Inside, a single plank of wood slung from wall to wall serves as a bench.  A chicken wire divide separates us from the clients who will shortly join us.  Large beams of sunlight pour in through gaps between the wooden planks serving as walls.  Gaping holes in the chicken wire make the tiny little official square hold in the middle irrelevant.

Three people walk into the corresponding room across the chicken wire—2 old men and a young boy in plain clothes.  The first man puts his palms together bows so that his fingertips cover his nose.  Typically, when two Khmer people meet for the first time, they will put their palms together and bring them up only to the level under their chin, so this man's behavior shows extreme deference and reverence.  Cambodian people will raise their hands together up to forehead level for greeting Buddhist monks and above their head for greeting the king.  I don't understand what the client says, but he seems so earnest and adamant about something.  I'm not sure how much of the details of his charge and his testimony I can include, so I won't share any to be on the safe side.  The next man seems more matter-of-fact.  He talks more calmly and slowly.  Both men bring their hands up to their noses for the attorney, the attorney's assistant, and even me when they leave.

Next, a female client comes in and sits across from us through the wire.  She seems so sad and heartbroken that I almost start to cry when she does.  She stares at me during a lot of her talk with the attorney.  Maybe it's easier to look into my sympathetic eyes than his more professional expression.  Sophoes tells me that she is worried about her children—a teenage girl and a young boy—because they have no one to look after them while she is in prison.  She urges us to find them and bring them to the investigating judge to testify on her behalf.  Mr. Poa spends the afternoon tracking down the daughter, who recently quit the waitress job her mom told us she had.

***

The next morning Sophoes tells me that he has found the daughter and she is meeting us at the IBJ office shortly.  We take her to the courthouse to give her testimony to the investigating judge (a different judge will preside over the trial, if there is one, because Cambodian law is based on the French civil law system).  The courthouse courtyard and office building look surprisingly similar to those of the prison, except the people who work here—4 judges and 11 clerks—are all in business dress and there is no prison yard behind the building.  Miscellaneous people sit on benches in front; an old man in a tattered shirt without shoes, a woman with a half-naked baby she carries around like a ragdoll.  The concept of dressing up for court is either non-existent or not possible.  The girl and I are waiting on a bench together for Sophoes.  I look at the girl and say, "ch'mo?'' which I think means name.  She says Suh-RA.  She looks at me and says, "ch'mo'?'' to which I respond ''Roz. . . go-LAAP'' because go-LAAP means Rose in Khmer.  She nods.  I hope I made her feel better.

Sophoes retrieves us.  I see shoes on the ground and pause to ask if I need to remove mine, but Sophoes tells me no.  We go into one of the judge's chambers.  It has a shorter glossy wooden conference table than the warden's office, but it has AC (which in my mind makes it superior in this heat).   The judge enters the room, and confusion spreads across her face when she sees me.  Sophoes explains to her why I am here and presumably gets permission for me to stay.  She nods, looks at me, and says in perfect English, "'Welcome to Cambodia.''  She then starts to interview the girl, prodding her for information.  The court clerk seems annoyed—he keeps rubbing his face and hair between bouts of frenzied typing on his laptop.  The judge's brow is furrowed and she carefully scrutinizes the girl when she starts to cry.  The interview is over and Sophoes tells me that the judge wants to talk to the other child.  The girl leaves and I wait for Sophoes.  A court clerk that I met the other night at the little boy's birthday party comes up to me and shakes my hand.  (I will find out several days later that physical contact between men and women in public is highly unusual, so this is a bit of a bold move on the clerk's part.)

I receive a tour inside the courtroom from Sophoes who points out where everyone sits—the judges, the prosecution, the defense, and the accused.  I ask where the jury box is.  He asks, "who jury?'' which makes me think Cambodia must not have a jury system so I say never mind.  Outside, he shows me an altar in the corner of the courtyard to Lok-da-tai-gro-home, the god to who witnesses in the Ratanakiri Province either pray or swear to before their testimonies in court (I wasn't clear on which one).  He looks menacing.  Offerings of fruit, rice, and open beer cans sit undisturbed at his feet.

 

altar

 

That afternoon, Sophoes has someone pick up the boy at the orphanage where he is staying and bring him to the courthouse.  He does not look happy.  He wears only tattered Tweety bird shorts, a brown buttonless blazer, and a layer of tears and grime.  The judge is a lot more gentle in her speech with him, but the testimony lasts for a much longer time because she seems to have trouble understanding him through whimpers.  I want to hug him or at least pat his back, but I have the feeling that unwanted physical contact from a strange foreigner might have the opposite of the desired effect.

Afterward, Sophoes takes the children to the prison where he convinces the warden to let them visit with their mom for 30 minutes for free.  This is a really big deal because visitors typically must pay for a maximum of 15 minutes.  I wish I had been able to go too, but I'm too scared to get on a moto with 3 other people at the same time.  I'm not sure how the case will progress, but Mr. Poa said it was really important to get the children's testimony to get to the truth of what happened.  At the very least, mom and children were reunited, however briefly.