Category Archives: Cambodia

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).

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lawyer’s Discovery of Truth Leads to Acquittal

 

June 2014

Rosemary Hambright

Scorned for being poor, a young man in Cambodia found himself at the mercy of a dysfunctional judicial system. Fortunately, IBJ was able to step in and offer legal aid.

What started as a story of romance for Virek[1], a 19-year-old villager from Stung Treng Province, ended with a 3-month prison detention for a crime he did not commit as well as a broken heart. Virek is one of 10 children who live and work with their mother on the family’s rice farm. The family is poor and still feels the loss of their father who died 7 years ago. Next door, Nary (age 18) lives with her wealthier family on a soy bean farm.

Virek and Nary were in love and had been dating for 2 years when one day, Nary’s sister caught the two of them alone and told their parents. Nary’s father hit her, so she lied and told him that Virek had raped her. Nary’s parents already disliked Virek because he was poor, so they filed a complaint against him. Nary herself even testified to the police that she had been raped. Virek was surprised when the police showed up to his home in the afternoon of February 8, 2014. He was taken to a police station where he was threatened with physical violence if he did not confess to raping Nary. Though Virek denied hurting her, he was still passed from commune to district to provincial police custody. Though he was not harmed, he continued to receive threats. The prosecutor filed charges and the investigating judge sent him to prison two days later on February 10th.

Kosal and Virek

Kosal and Virek

Under Cambodian law rape is considered a felony, meaning that legal representation must be provided to the accused. The police, prosecutor, and the investigating judge all failed to inform Virek about his rights. Luckily, Virek’s older cousin Kosal knew about the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC). In Stung Treng province, ADHOC will refer cases to International Bridges to Justice as they often work in partnership. The IBJ lawyer who lives and works in the neighboring Ratanakiri province, Mao Sary, also takes on cases from Stung Treng province with the help of his assistant, Phon Sophoes. When Kosal contacted ADHOC about his cousin’s unfair imprisonment two days after the Virek’s arrest, ADHOC referred him to IBJ.

Phon Sophoes, Kosal and Virek

IBJ’s goal is to prevent investigative torture by becoming involved with its clients’ cases at the earliest stage possible. It strives to hold justice stakeholders to the same standard of law as articulated in the Cambodian Constitution, statutes, and treaties, all of which recognize certain universal human rights. Though Virek was never informed of his right to legal counsel during his time in detention, IBJ hopes to facilitate a culture in which the law is applied equally to all who are accused. In addition, IBJ runs radio ads and organizes Community Legal Awareness campaigns to inform citizens of their rights as well as advertise the availability of IBJ.

Virek describes prison life as “difficult.” A typical day might start at 5 am, although if it had rained during the night Virek would not have been able to sleep at all. The room that he shared with 34 other people did not have walls, only chain link fences, so everyone became wet if it rained. Additionally, in order for everyone to fit on the floor at night, the prisoners were forced to sleep on their sides. During the day, Virek and the others made metal fish traps that were sold to vendors in the market. Virek made 3000 riel ($0.75 USD) a day and saved it to buy sweets or shampoo from the prison guards. Though he was allowed to take a shower each day, he never knew when it would be. Meals were served only twice a day at around 11 am and 3 pm. Poor plumbing meant the prison frequently smelled bad.

The prison guards insulted Virek daily. He lived in fear of them and some of the other prisoners. One time he saw his family through the fence because they had come to visit him. Unfortunately, the prison guards decided not to let them see Virek and made them leave. Each day Virek wondered to himself how much longer he might be in prison. He had no idea. He longed for freedom and worried about his family. Three weeks after Virek’s incarceration, Mao Sary visited him and found out that the alleged victim, Nary, was actually Virek’s long-term girlfriend. He also met with Virek’s family and learned about Nary’s family’s prejudice. He knew Virek was innocent so he came up with a strategy to help him.

During the trial, Mao Sary asked the trial judge to send Nary’s family out of the room. When they were gone, he asked Nary if Virek had raped her. With the pressure from her family removed, she admitted she had been lying to the police, the prosecutor, and the investigating judge. She said she was in love with Virek and that he had not raped her. Thanks to the work of IBJ, he was acquitted of his false accusations in May. The first thing Virek did when he went to his home was hug and kiss his family before enjoying a big bowl of rice.

Since leaving prison, Virek has not seen or spoken with Nary. Her family has forbidden her to talk with him. He now works on his cousin Kosal’s farm during the day and only returns to his mother’s house to sleep at night. Virek’s family is scared of retaliation from Nary’s family, but when asked if he thought it would be better if he were in prison Virek said that ”No, it is better to be free.” When asked which was worse—his experience in prison or losing Nary—he looked down at the ground and said his broken heart.

Virek

Virek thinks that if he did not have an IBJ lawyer, he would still be in prison today. This is likely true. Under Cambodian law, rape without aggravating circumstances is punishable by imprisonment from five to ten years. In addition, the investigating judge looking into a felony may opt to keep the prisoner in jail for up to an additional 18 months before the trial. Furthermore, because Virek was charged with a felony, his trial could not have proceeded without legal representation. There is one private lawyer in Stung Treng province, but Virek’s family is too poor to afford his services. The Stung Treng court would have had to request a legal aid lawyer from the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC). Some prisoners have had to wait for their trial in prison for as long as one or two years for a BAKC lawyer from Phnom Penh. As IBJ’s legal aid lawyers are permanently stationed in the provinces, IBJ is able to ensure that there are less undue delays in case procedures in the more remote areas of Cambodia.

Virek is ”very happy and grateful” that IBJ helped him. His cousin Kosal is also ”very happy” and wants to say ”thank you very much” to IBJ. Virek still thinks about his life in jail every once in a while as ”it was such a difficult and bad time.” He says that he ”wants IBJ to help other prisoners because some prisoners like [him] are innocent.” Not all prisoners understand their rights and even fewer understand the role of a lawyer. Virek’s cousin Kosal has made a point of telling all of his friends and neighbors about IBJ’s legal aid services. Thanks to the quick thinking of Kosal, IBJ was able to intervene and reunite an innocent boy and his family.

[1] Names have been changed for this story. The client and his family consented for their story to be shared.

Father of 5 Released by IBJ Lawyer

11 June 2014

Jeanne Salomé

Mr. Pagna(1) lives in a small village, 30 minutes away from Banteay Meanchey city in the north-west corner of Cambodia. His house made of metal sheets stands close to rice fields and small water streams. A father-of-5, he and his wife already had difficulties supporting their family and their daily living. A while ago, Pagna walked on a mine and lost his ability to perform all kinds of work. He mainly relies on fishing and other small jobs to make a living. The land he occupies with his family was lent to them by an owner, understanding their dire situation. But ultimately, they need to pay him back. In these difficult circumstances, Pagna’s wife suggested him last February to go up the stream close to their house and try to catch some fish there. Pagna went and used electronic equipment to provoke an electric shock and get more fish. He knew that such fishing methods were forbidden, but he was ready to take the risk and get a chance to bring back a little bit more money for his family. However, one day, as he was sailing up the stream to go back home, he saw the police waiting for him, probably alerted by some people in the neighborhood.

The police officers arrested Pagna and seized his fishing equipment, boat and motorbike to use them as evidence in the case. One day after his arrest, Pagna was taken to the court and then to the prison to wait for his trial. The court officers informed IBJ about his case. Nop Kunthol, the IBJ lawyer in Banteay Meanchey province, met with Pagna in prison. Considering the circumstances of the case and her client’s personal situation, Nop Kunthol applied for bail. The first bail application was not successful due to administrative issues within the court. The judge agreed on the first bail application but did not properly fill in the document to transfer to the prosecutor. The latter, noticing the missing parts in the document, did not process the release on bail to avoid mistakes in procedure. Quickly, Nop Kunthol filled a second bail request which was successful.

Mr Pagna and his family in their home in Banteay Meanchey

Mr Pagna and his family in their home in Banteay Meanchey

In total, Pagna spent 4 months in pretrial detention. Those 4 months were very difficult for him. He was really worried about his family, especially given the fact that his wife was about to deliver their fifth child. His wife tried to find support from other organizations. When she heard about IBJ, she was skeptical about whether or not the lawyer’s services were free of charge. Now she trusts IBJ and spreads the word about the organization. Unfortunately, to date, Pagna has not been able to resume his work, as the court seized his equipment and his vehicle and did not allow him to get new ones. He will try to find a solution to earn some money. He and the IBJ lawyer are now waiting for the trial date, and will do their best to come up with a solid defense strategy and prevent him being sentenced to imprisonment and being away from his family again.


(1) Names changed.

Intervention of IBJ Lawyer Results in Shortened Sentence for Poor Man

10 June 2014

Jeanne Salomé

 Twenty-four year old Virak[1] has been in prison since November 2013. When we met him in early June 2014, he still had to serve one more week of his sentence before being definitively released. He was charged with theft and had received a reduced sentence during his trial last May, thanks to the intervention of Roth Chantol, an International Bridges to Justice lawyer working in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

Virak was arrested by the police last year for having stolen a phone in a garage. After a couple of drinks with friends, he had taken his motorbike there to get it fixed. When he went back to the garage the following day, the police were there waiting to arrest him.

Police officers interrogated him and asked him how many times he had committed theft. He spoke the truth: only this one time. The police slapped him twice and beat him with a stick in an attempt to obtain evidence that would escalate his case to a more serious crime. Though Virak controlled himself, the police quickly still him to prison in pre-trial detention after a short first appearance before the court. No one in the court or in the prison informed him about his rights. Luckily for Virak, IBJ and Roth Chantol found out about his case during one of their regular visits to the prison where they both agreed that he would represent Virak.

On the 9th of May 2014, Virak went to attend his trial with Roth Chantol. Charged with theft, he incurred a sentence of 6 months to 3 years imprisonment. The lawyer presented his defense arguments, highlighting the fact that his client was a first-time offender and that the act he committed was not a serious one. Chantol emphasized the fact that his client had pled guilty and maintained the same, consistent, version of the facts throughout the procedure. Accordingly, the IBJ lawyer requested that the court consider Article 93 of the Criminal Code of Cambodia regarding mitigating circumstances. His strategy was to convince the panel of judges of his legal arguments and obtain a reduced sentence for his client. In the end they were successful: the court sentenced Virak to 7 months of imprisonment. As he had already served several months in pretrial detention, he will be soon released.

Virak had never heard about IBJ before they came to his aid. As we met him in prison in early June, he told us that he knows he would have stayed in jail much longer without the help of a defense lawyer. He truly appreciates the lawyer’s efforts, both inside and outside of the courtroom, especially because Roth Chantol visited him in prison several times and advised him on how to behave and what to say on the day of trial. Virak felt more protected with a lawyer at his defense and was confident that the case would result in a positive outcome. After his release, Virak will most likely he will spend some time with his mother living in a pagoda and resume his life as a self-employed worker.

 

[1] Names changed.