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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Cambodian Justice

by Jeff Cook

It didn't take long for me to realize that Cambodian justice has a unique character to it.  For example, witnesses called to testify in court are informed: "Should anyone answer untruthfully about what they know, have seen, have heard, and remember, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians, Yeay Tep and powerful sacred spirits utterly and without mercy destroy them, and bestow upon them a miserable and violent death by means of bullets, electricity, lightning, tiger bites, and snake strikes, and in their future reincarnation separate them from their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren, impoverish them, and subject them to miseries for 500 reincarnations."  In case that isn't a sufficient deterrent, witnesses must then swear, "I will answer only the truth, in accordance with what I have personally seen, heard, know, and remember.  If I answer falsely on any issue, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians and powerful sacred spirits destroy me, may my material possessions be destroyed, and may I die a miserable and violent death.  But, if I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possessions and living in peace and happiness along with my family and relatives forever, in all my reincarnations."

It is into this world that I am immersing myself for the next year with IJM as a legal fellow.  And in my first week here, I was able to attend what I thought would be my first trial.  As with many, if not all, the cases that I will be assisting with in Cambodia, this one involves the selling of underage girls for sex.  Specifically, this case is against individuals accused of running a massage parlor that doubled as a brothel with over 60 women working there -- many of whom were underage.  Two of the girls had prepared to testify against the defendants (the police, likely after receiving bribes, released most of the other women and underage girls back into the streets the same night of the operation), but after arriving in court we learned that of the four defendants, only one of them had an attorney present.  Apparently, some of the attorneys had informed the judges beforehand that they were not going to be there because they had not yet received payment from the defendants.  Due to the defense attorneys' absence, the judges, three in total, delayed the trial for two weeks, but received the defendants' permission to go ahead with the trial even if their attorneys failed to appear again.  This practice of delay repeated itself at the second trial I was supposed to attend the following week, but this time the culprit was the prosecutor, who had informed the judges that he was "busy." 

It was shortly after these two delays that I was walking along one of the main streets in Phnom Penh next to the river when a man asked me if I would like a young girl from Vietnam for the night.  I was shocked and taken aback by the question and thought as I walked away that the outlook for justice being done in Cambodia was becoming a little dreary.

Since that evening, things have appeared a bit brighter.  The first trial, delayed because of defense counsels' failure to appear, went forward last Friday with three defense attorneys present.  At the trial, which lasted a grand total of two hours and forty-five minutes, the two girls provided powerful testimony about their experiences in the brothel while standing inches behind where the defendants were sitting -- so brave!  Just yesterday, the judges returned a verdict of guilty for all four defendants and sentenced each of the defendants to 5 years in prison.  Praise God that some justice has been obtained for the victims in this case.  Each conviction under Cambodia's new anti-trafficking law is a transformative step for the justice system here, so please pray that other girls will have the courage to testify in front of their abusers and that judges will take to heart the gravity of the offenses in these cases.