Highlights from the Asia JusticeMakers Competition 2010: Harshi Perera

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After Harshi Perera received her law degree from the Open University of Sri Lanka in 2008 with a specialization in human rights, she began formally assisting Janasansadaya (JS) by responding to human rights violations and cases. She developed a particular passion advocating for the rights of children and women, perceiving these groups as some of the most vulnerable in Sri Lanka. Now 2010 Asia JusticeMakers Fellow Harshi Perera reflects on the competition and how far she’s come.

H.M. Harshi Chitrangi Perera

2010 Asia JusticeMakers Fellow, Sri Lanka

August 29, 2014

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  1. What made you apply for IBJ’s JusticeMakers Competition?

{To} work for another human being and make a difference. We needed a grant to do this.

  1. What were some of the initial challenges you faced in implementing your work?

 The malpractices and delays in justice system, along with the {the lack of} professionals attached to it, proved difficult.  Criticism from the media when trying to give bail to a LTTE suspect also caused hindrances.

  1. What were you able to achieve with your grant of $5,000?

What I achieved was more valuable than $5,000. I successfully fulfilled the goal, releasing five women pre-trial detainees from the Welikada Female Prison Ward.  One woman was an eight year pre-trial detainee, while another woman was released with her baby. We were able to help two other women, one whom had been remanded on fabrication of charge by the police and another woman who is a rape survivor whom had been remanded for not appearing before the court for five years.

  1. What have you gained from joining the international community of JusticeMakers Fellows?

 Experience and knowledge.

  1. As a recipient of IBJ’s JusticeMakers Competition, what advice would you give to those looking to apply?

Work Hard. Have a dream of what you are going to achieve. Work double than the grant of $5,000. Work to raise voices instead of money.

IBJ Legal Fellow Thanked by Young Client at Prison Gates

Last Friday, IBJ Legal Fellow Kan Seng Houth met the man he helped free outside the gates of the Kompong Thom Provincial Prison in Cambodia. The young man expressed his deepest gratitude to Houth and to all the members of International Bridges to Justice Cambodia for coming to his defense. The two are pictured below, just after his release.

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Photos graciously provided by Kan Seng Houth

 

IBJ Brings Community Together for Legal Rights Awareness Event in Kampongthom Provence

The Defender Resource Center in Cambodia often puts together Legal Rights Awareness events with posters and brochures, radio campaigns, and community education events. On August 8th, 2014 IBJ lawyers and investigators hosted a Legal Rights Awareness Campaign where prisoner officers and defendants came together for a roundtable discussion at the Kampongthom Provincial Prison. By reviewing basic rights and answering questions,  IBJ helped individuals better understand the Cambodian legal system.

Legal Rights Awareness Campaign for Prison Officers and Defendants

Legal Rights Awareness Campaign for Prison Officers and Defendants

Meeting in Kampongthom Provincial Prison

Meeting in Kampongthom Provincial Prison

IBJ Lawyers and Defenders answer questions

IBJ Lawyers and Defenders answer questions

Prison Officials and Defendants come together

Prison Officers and Defendants coming together

 

Photos generously provided by Kan Seng Houth 

IBJ Lawyers Intervene to Save Young Boy After Forced Confession

Erika Larsen, Legal Intern

July 22nd, 2014

At 16 years old, Vannak[1] found himself being interrogated by two police officers – in fear that if he did not provide a confession for crimes he knew nothing about, he would be subjected to violence. The officers did not inform him of his right to a lawyer, and he feared the “large officer” would “punish him by hit[ting] him” if he did not provide the answers they sought. Vannak “was afraid, so [he] did what they said” and ‘confessed’ to serving as an accomplice to intentional damage to property and intentional violence – crimes which, given these particular circumstances, would warrant up to 15 years in prison and over 10 million riel ($2,000 USD) in fines[2].

Vannak’s friend had been in a fight a few days before police stopped Vannak in an internet shop and arrested him last November. Vannak had heard about the fight, but had no idea that since then his friend had attacked his foe with a knife, injuring the victim and damaging the victim’s house where the attack took place. When police questioned a friend of the perpetrator, he lied and implicated Vannak in the crime. However, the day the attack took place, Vannak had been hanging out with a friend, playing volleyball amongst other things.  When the police questioned Vannak, he was forced to give a coerced confession for a crime he was unaware even happened.

Vannak sharing

Vannak recounts his experience in prison

After six hours in the police post, which is almost two hours from the Battambang/Thailand border-town where Vannak lives with his mother, Vannak was allowed to call his mother, and then was taken to the prison. However, because necessary prison admission forms had not been signed, and it was too late at night to find a judge to do so, Vannak was brought back to the police post where he slept for one night. It was not until his hearing the next morning that the judge informed him he should have a lawyer. The court clerk referred Vannak’s mother to IBJ when she arrived at the courthouse, after frantically rushing from their town to the Battambang court – a costly journey that she had to take multiple times during this ordeal.

After meeting with Vannak’s mother just a few days after Vannak’s arrest, Sothea (the provincial lawyer here in DRC 6) took on Vannak’s case in its earliest stages. The investigating judge dismissed the case against Vannak after Sothea presented Vannak’s friend who had spent the day with him on the date of the incident as a witness. Sothea further pointed out that there was no evidence indicating Vannak’s involvement in this crime.

Although the investigating judge dismissed the charges, the dismissal did not occur until after Vannak spent 15 days inside the prison. I wrote previously about the conditions a minor kept in the prison here in Battambang can face (see http://ow.ly/yDZ58), and the conditions Vannak faced were very similar. He spent his days in a five by five meter cell with 20 other inmates, finding both sleep and food scarce, but able to use his mornings for exercise. Vannak felt he was lucky, as he said new prisoners were often made to stay in the bathrooms until space opened up in the cells; however, because the prison guards took a liking to him, he instead stayed in the overcrowded cell.

Me (legal intern), Vannak[1], Vannak’s Mother, Kalyan (lawyer assistant); Taken at their home.

Me (legal intern), Vannak[1], Vannak’s Mother, Kalyan (lawyer assistant); Taken at their home.

Upon his release, Vannak says he was “absolutely happy.” As was his mother, who had spent each day crying because she “knew it was a mistake” and kept wondering “why they [were doing this] to her son.” As a single mother who makes only $100 per month as the owner of a pharmacy, she was unable to visit him because the prison was too far and she had already spent much of her income traveling to the IBJ office. Her sister attempted to visit but the guards refused to let her in because Vannak had only been in prison for a few days and their policy only allows for visits every 15 days. Needless to say, Vannak’s mother was “very happy” upon her young son’s release. Now 17, Vannak is in the process of completing 12th grade with hopes of becoming a doctor. Thankfully, false accusations and a coerced confession will no longer hold him back as he completes his education.

 

[1] Name changed for client’s privacy.

[2] Art. 29, 218, 414, Cambodia Criminal Code (CCC) (2009).

Highlights from the JusticeMakers Competition 2012: Reflecting on Our Challenges and Successes

 

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With the JusticeMakers Competition 2014 now underway, International Bridges to Justice would like to take a moment to reflect back on past Fellows whose legacies will serve to inspire future generations of JusticeMakers throughout the world.  2012 HIV/AIDS JusticeMaker Fellow, C. Christian Zarweah from Liberia, answered a few questions about joining the international community of Fellows, what keeps him motivated, and advice for future applicants.

C. Christian Zarweah

2012 Justice Fellow, Liberia

August 14, 2014

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  1. What made you apply for IBJ’s JusticeMakers Competition?

Our world is filled with many people who are either affected by HIV/Aids, disability, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, low-income backgrounds, sicknesses, the haves and the have-nots and they need someone to identify with them so as to find common practical solutions to their plights. It is only when collaborative efforts are applied like the initiative of IBJ can such people find peace and recognition and the dignity they deserve and desire. I was motivated to apply to IBJ to give some hope and dignity to people in my region and country who are affected and those who are vulnerable because of their status so as to give them legal defense and hope and a better sense and realization as to why they exist and what they can do to improve their conditions.

  1. What were some of the initial challenges you faced in implementing your work?

The ability to mobilize and bring the different law enforcement groups and the affected individuals together to speak with one mind and work together was my initial challenge since that idea was strange in my region. Finally we succeeded in mobilizing the police, judges, magistrates, major and key stakeholders and the affected individuals and the medical people to begin to work together and collaborate for the welfare of the affected and vulnerable. Our success was then greatly due to the willingness of the different groups involved to coordinate and collaborate that finally yielded in a defense team been organized, a community volunteer group established and identification of the affected and most vulnerable women and children became a reality when their legal, emotional, and social needs were all addressed.

  1. What were you able to achieve with your grant of $5,000?

The money itself was not much, but it served as catalyst, thereby giving us the different teams and elements to coordinate to ensure positive result as was in our case. There were multiple successes, but the outstanding one that kept ringing bell in my heart and ear was the story of a three year old girl who got affected at birth along with a mother in her mid twenties who herself was affected. We were able to identify this small family who had been chased from one home and community to another by family members, boyfriends, and friends because of their status. We intervened through our legal defense team, provided a place to stay, basic energy and food for them, and established a little table market for sustainability. The mother later became our key outreach person on the impact and effect of HIV/Aids. As I reflect on the face of this young child who found herself affected at birth with an infected mother, I realized that there are many unknown and unheard voices and stories like that three year old and her mother and I was continually encouraged to reach out with the funding from IBJ. We were also able to bring the judges, magistrates, police and stakeholders together to discuss on how to coordinate their activities so as to give legal protection and dignity to the affected and vulnerable. This collaborative effort was one of our key successes where law enforcers have worked independently in the past. We also succeeded in bringing the medical and clinic workers on board so as to work together to conceal the identity of affected persons from the community to avoid attack or abuse. We succeeded in that the medical people promised to help keep the privacy of the effected persons. This too was a major success from our end. The fact that even some of the most vulnerable were given monthly ration of energy food of which otherwise they could not obtain thereby giving them hope, dignity and the sense of belonging was a major success in itself. Our FM education and awareness made the general public to begin to respect the rights and dignity of affected people that too was a major success.

  1. What have you gained from joining the international community of JusticeMakers Fellows?

I have learnt that together when we join hands and efforts and resources, we can achieve much. The little three years old could not be reached directly by IBJ, but through collaboration and coordinating resources, the little vulnerable three year old found grace and relief through an IBJ sponsored project. When we collaborate and better coordinate our expertise, resources and efforts, we will surely achieve more even with limited funding.

I also remain grateful to IBJ whose project support and intervention gave Lua and her daughter Susanna hope and stability and full legal protection.   Yes, indeed, together we can play our collective roles in building bridges to the affected, the neglected, the outcast, the forgotten, and the orphans and vulnerable because they are affected and we can renew their hopes and dignity.

  1. As a recipient of IBJ’s JusticeMakers Competition, what advice would you give to those looking to apply?

As a recipient myself I would like to give these pieces of advice to those seeking to apply:

  1. That they truly have the human love and interest in what they want to do
  2. That they have the enthusiasm and determination to withstand pressure in the midst of multiple challenges
  3. That they are able to work with different people of different expectations and backgrounds
  4. That they have the interest of the affected and vulnerable at heart
  5. That they are willing to volunteer and serve rightly and properly doing the project and after

 

IBJ Training Unites New Generation of Chinese Defense Lawyers

August 2014

Jasmine Wang

From June to October 2013, IBJ China held its pilot Series of Training (SoT) in Beijing under its Defender Empowerment Series (DES) project. The SoT is a program of eight training sessions spread over four months aimed specifically at young lawyers just beginning a career in criminal defense. Potential applicants were expected to have passed the bar exam, to have worked less than three years in criminal justice, and a commitment to taking legal aid cases. Applications were submitted from across China and eventually 40 promising lawyers were selected to participate; many had to travel by air or overnight train just to attend the trainings.

 A major draw for the participating lawyers was the opportunity to learn from the DES Trainers, all of whom were invited for their specific expertise. These DES Trainers themselves had participated in a weeklong IBJ training focused on fostering highly interactive, case-based teaching methods. In addition, their experience in the field of criminal justice allowed them to provide participants with extremely practical and immediately useful skills.

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Lawyer Meng was an SoT participant who described how fortunate he felt for joining the program when he was still in the middle of his apprenticeship, “[As an apprentice]… I had an enormous caseload and there was a risk for the work to become mindless. Copying case reports word for word into my own notes, meeting clients and taking notes verbatim—I could easily lose focus of my work. Suddenly, after beginning the SoT, I was excited to put new skills I had learned directly into practice. It substantively helped to improve the way I take cases now.”

For Meng, the most useful skills he acquired were the ones directly related to his daily tasks—no detail was too small. As there is no standardized style guide yet in China, he specifically expressed gratitude to Trainer Zhang who taught him the exact font, text size, spacing between paragraphs and effective wording to use when compiling a defense submission for the court.

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Meng states, “I learned to create a note-taking system for interviewing clients that ensured I would ask for the key points necessary to build my case and to establish trust with my clients. For evidence, I now use the Diagram Analysis Method that Trainer Zhang taught me that has added enormous credibility to my submissions.”

Recently, in a case where the client was arrested for fraud, Meng made use the Diagram Analysis Method and tabulated each piece of evidence while providing an objective summary of its relationship to the case and its monetary value. This thorough analysis of evidence and the defense’s valuation of the accused’s crime was quickly accepted by the prosecution. According to Meng, “…the prosecution could tell that our work was of high-quality and it helped build their trust in us. Because of this, they supported our argument that the client had surrendered—a mitigating factor for the sentencing—and submitted a more lenient opinion to the court.”

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In the year since attending SoT, Meng finished is apprenticeship and his career has made great strides. Along with his associate Lawyer Ma—also an SoT participant—in July 2014 Meng launched a pro bono clinic, “Criminal Legal Aid for the Weak,” serving vulnerable populations in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province. Meng states, “After watching my teachers give so much to me and helping me achieve a level of confidence in my work, I really wanted to use these skills and give back to the community around me.”

Beyond providing a highly interactive training, SoT focused itself on fostering community and a sense of solidarity between colleagues in the work of criminal justice. This past weekend, sixteen SoT lawyers reunited for a salon organized by IBJ and reflected upon the effectiveness of the trainings and how their own careers have progressed since then. SoT Trainer Yi remarked to his students, “As individual lawyers, we cannot do so much or accomplish what we want from our careers. It’s only as a community of collaborators that we can really tap our potential as criminal justice lawyers.”

With the feedback and response from the Beijing pilot, IBJ plans to expand SoT in 2015 to four new locations throughout China.

Justice Has No Limits: IBJ Lawyers Travel Hours to Reach People in Remotest Areas to Help Them Seek Justice

IBJ lawyers and investigators go to great lengths on a daily basis in an effort to provide legal aid to those most in need. It is critical for our legal fellows to be fully engaged in the communities in which IBJ works, taking an active role in creating systemic social and legal change. Lawyers Kan Seng Houth and Nou Chandeth often travel from IBJ’s Kampong Thom Defender Resource Centre to the most remote provinces of Cambodia to offer their free legal services.

Living Conditions in Kampong Thom Province

Living Conditions in Kampong Thom Province

Nou Chandeth, IBJ's Legal Fellow in the Province

Nou Chandeth, IBJ’s Legal Fellow in the Province

IBJ Works with Those Most in Need

IBJ Reaching Those Most in Need

 

 

Pictures graciously provided by IBJ lawyer and investigator Kan Seng Houth. 

 

Not Even Floods Can Stop IBJ Lawyers

Conditions in Cambodia have presented challenges for the lawyers and investigators of International Bridges to Justice working to provide legal aid and assistance throughout the country. Recently, heavy rain has caused flooding in the Stung Treng Province. Those working in the Defender Resource Centers (DRCs) have been forced to travel by boat to meet clients, conduct legal aid awareness campaigns, and even to access the court house.

 

Meeting clients at the Stung Treng Court House

Entering the  Stung Treng Provincial Court House

IBJ Investigator Sophoes Phon from the Ratanakiri DRC

IBJ Investigator Sophoes Phon from the Ratanakiri DRC

Entering the court house

Stung Treng Provincial Court House

IBJ Lawyer Mao Sari also from the Ratanakiri DRC

IBJ Lawyer Mao Sari also from the Ratanakiri DRC

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Meeting clients at the Stung Treng Provincial Court House

 

Man Sees Freedom After Being Charged for Unintended Crime

March 2014

 Megan Williams

IBJ lawyers came to the aid of a man named Mr. Dara En from Kampong Thom Province in Cambodia by reducing his sentence for a crime he was unaware of committing.

Mr. En is a 19-year-old male that was 18 years of age when the alleged crime took place, living with his parents and siblings in a small village.  Along with the other members of his family, he work hard to provide for his younger siblings and extended family, helping with daily work on their small farm.

Mr. En was arrested by police for cutting down trees in the forest without authorization. At the time of the incident Mr. En did not know that it was illegal to cut down the trees without prior authorization. He was arrested along with 5 others on September 9, 2013 while returning home from work. Mr. En was taken to the local police station where he was held for 24 hours before being transferred to prison where he would remain for four months before his case was brought to trial.

When asked about his experience of being arrested, Mr. En stated that he was in shock and disbelief over what had happened. He did not realize that he was committing a crime and believing his life was over had IBJ not intervened. When taken to the police station, Mr. En states that although conditions at the prison were not ideal, he was not treated badly and police did not torture or ask him for money. Before Mr. En was arrested, he was unaware of the services that IBJ offered. He found out about IBJ through his parents who contacted an IBJ lawyer on their son’s behalf. Before the lawyer arrived, Mr. En was not aware of his legal rights, including the right to an attorney should he request one. Mr. En stated that without the help of IBJ he would still be in prison serving his 1 year sentence.

With the help of an IBJ lawyer, his sentence was reduced to 5 months. This was due in part to the research and due diligence of the IBJ lawyer as well as the cooperation of Mr. En while in police custody. The IBJ lawyer located in Kampong Thom province recounts that the technique used in this case was to review the facts and illustrate that his client did not know what he was doing was illegal. The fact that he had never been in trouble with the law before also helped his case. All this combined with the client’s good behavior while in custody helped the IBJ lawyer attain a reduced sentence for Mr. En.

Mr. En feels happy and extremely grateful to IBJ for assisting him through this process. He feels everyone was supportive and helpful in getting him through this difficult time. Mr. En is now fully aware of his human and legal rights, thanks in part to IBJ’s legal aid services. He never wants something like this to happen again and will be more careful in the future. If something similar was to ever happen to someone he knows, Mr. En will be sure to inform them of their rights so they will not have to experience what he went through before IBJ was able to come to his assistance.

 

 

 

 

 

Early Access to Council Helps Free Young Woman in Phnom Penh

Jake Mooney

July  2014

Ms. Thyda[1] is 24- year-old woman living in a small house with her family on the side of an abandoned railway in Phnom Penh. Her house is part of a community of pieced-together houses, colloquially referred to as a slum. It is in this very same community where the incident leading to her detention and upcoming trial occurred. Her possible charge is intentional violence with aggression.

IBJ lawyer Ms. Chan Reaseypheak, Thyda and IBJ intern Jake Mooney

IBJ lawyer Ms. Chan Reaseypheak, Thyda and IBJ intern Jake Mooney

It all began when her monthly 64-dollar paycheck went missing from her locker, which she suspects was stolen. In order to pay her bills, she was forced to ask a man from her community for a loan. Unfortunately, Ms. Thyda caught him at the wrong time as he was on his porch visibly intoxicated. He started calling her names, belligerently insulting her and her family. He then proceeded to throw food and metal objects at her. Eventually the situation escalated into a physical altercation. It is at this point that an unknown group of men arrived and proceeded to beat the man up. Though she left quickly, Ms. Thyda did not escape without being severely beaten.

Ms. Thyda was aware of the fact that this man was a government informant living in the slums to provide information about the goings-on in the community. This frightened her because these connections made him a dangerous man to upset and could mean extreme prejudice and injustice against her. As it turns out, he was so upset that he called his friends at the police station and blamed the entire incident on this young woman who had come to him for help.

The police asked Ms. Thyda to come give her statement at the station. Since she felt she did nothing wrong, she went to the station right away. However, instead of taking her statement they decided to keep her in custody until the investigation started. She was not informed of any time limit on her custody and feared that she could be kept there indefinitely. It is hard to say how long she may have stayed had International Bridges to Justice not intervened.

There is no time limit, no oversight; she could have been detained for however long they saw fit. As no charges were made, Ms. Thyda was not read her rights. She was thrown into a damp10x10 foot cell with no light other than a 4×6 inch window. The conditions were deplorable. There was no bed, sheets, or ventilation at all. Though prison conditions are already poor, custody conditions are even less monitored due to the fact that they are meant to be short term holding facilities. Conditions vary from lush cells, usually reserved for the wealthy, to what Ms. Thyda unfortunately experienced. She was in custody for five days during which time she was provided absolutely no food or water. Luckily her family was able to bring her what little sustenance they could afford to keep her going. Looking back at those five long days in the custody, Ms. Thyda said, “I felt absolutely hopeless. I was hungry, tired, scared and I knew that nobody was coming to help me. I felt depressed because at this point, my life seemed to be over.”[2]

Thyda and her family, IBJ intern Jake Mooney and IBJ lawyer Ms Chan Reaseypheak (in the middle)

Thyda and her family, IBJ intern Jake Mooney and IBJ lawyer Ms. Chan Reaseypheak (middle)

IBJ is known by many other organizations in Cambodia as one of the only viable options to turn in a situation like this. There are groups that particularly try to look after service workers in Phnom Penh. Luckily, the restaurant Ms. Thyda works for is connected to one such group that specifically looks after women who work night jobs. After hearing about her situation, the organization contacted IBJ for help. An IBJ attorney was able to meet with Ms. Thyda the very next day, listen to her story, and get her released from custody that same day. Since there were no existing charges, there was no bail or hearing.

As Ms. Thyda’s case demonstrates, early access to council is essential. Lawyers play an integral role in advocating and protecting prisoner’s rights within the legal system. Ms. Thyda could have easily been in custody for months before any investigation even started. She has not been charged with anything yet, but if she is, IBJ will be by her side defending her rights every step of the way.

 

[1] Name Changed (French)

[2]  Translated from English