16 March 2014
On 21 July 2011, Samnang(1) was getting ready in his bathroom when he heard his phone ringing in the living room. He heard his wife pick up, get angry, and go outside where he heard her talking to one of his friends. Apparently his friend who had called his wife out of the house was not alone: the police were there as well. Samnang heard all of them leaving and rushed to the police station himself, where he was arrested as well. All were charged with drug trafficking. Samnang was kept one day in police custody before being transferred to the prison of Mondulkiri, where he was kept in pretrial detention.
Chheang Makara, the IBJ lawyer based in Mondulkiri, received the case immediately at the police stage. According to Cambodia’s Criminal Procedure Code, the person arrested has the right to talk to a lawyer after their period of 24 hours in police custody has expired(2). Initially, Samnang was charged under article 33 of the Law on Drug Control which punishes anyone involved in drug trafficking or consumption by 10 to 20 years of imprisonment and by a fine penalty from 10 to 50 million riels ($2,500 to $12,500).
Samnang explained to his lawyer that he was indeed involved in drug trafficking except that he was actually an undercover citizen working for the police who were trying to dismantle drug trafficking networks in the area. According to the law in Cambodia, the police may involve citizens to infiltrate drug trafficking networks and report them to the authorities. Though the police had convinced Samnang to play this role, he never obtained written evidence of this agreement, nor did he receive money from the police in exchange for his help.
After more than 8 months spent in pretrial detention, Samnang and his wife were tried on 9th April 2012. The IBJ lawyer requested to change the charges brought against his client to the offense of hiding leads with the purpose of creating obstacles to finding facts, punishable by 1 to 3 years of imprisonment with a fine from 2 to 6 million riels ($500 to $1,500). He also underlined that initially the police had arrested 3 persons: Samnang, his wife, and his friend. While the latter had been released, Samnang remained in detention with the same allegations. Makara requested the police to investigate equally if the three persons were going to be charged with the same offense. He also underlined that his client had confessed to the commission of the acts from the investigative stage. Since the police did not believe him, they did not further investigate into his allegations. Makara recalled to the court the background of his client, coming from a poor family with a wife that had just miscarried and who was not in proper health condition to stay in prison. The lawyer used these circumstance to request a reduced sentence from the court. The IBJ lawyer’s defense strategy proved to be efficient: the court re-characterized the facts and sentenced Samnang and his wife to 1.5 years in prison and to a fine of 10 million riels ($2,500). Both had already spent more than 8 months in pretrial detention and were released in December 2012.
Samnang spent a year and a half in a 2×2 m cell, often with 8 or 9 other people. Though enough food was provided in prison, the taste was insipid. Samnang’s family came often to visit; however he was not able to meet his wife even if they were detained in the same prison. Men and women are kept separate and they had only the chance to glimpse at each other in the prison’s yard without being able to talk properly. Every day he was allowed to go outside of his cell for only 30 minutes to exercise with only 15 minutes to bathe. His personal and mental strengths were challenged during detention. Sickened by the unfairness of his situation he could not help releasing his anger in prison. One day he loudly hit the prison door in an access of indignation. He was harshly punished by the prison authorities who beat him and even used electric shocks on him. He was so depressed that he would have considered committing suicide if it had not been for the other prisoners who prevented him from doing so.
After he had been released, the Chief of the Anti-Drug Department contacted him again to reintegrate his role. Needless to say, he refused. Instead he took up his former occupation working in the forest to find bees to sell. He and his wife were happy to go back to their normal life even if they are still bearing the prison stigma in the eyes of their neighbors.
The IBJ lawyer helped him from the earliest stage of the proceedings, until the end of the trial. Samnang acknowledged that his lawyer did the best to help him, even if they could not get an acquittal. Once out of prison, Samnang made himself a voice in favor of free legal services for the accused. He wants to show people that it is possible to win a case without money.
(1) Named changed.
(2) Article 98, Code of Criminal Procedure of the Kingdom of Cambodia.