Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 8

7th October

It’s coming up to a holiday, so the guards have upped the frequency of room searches. The rules are simple, if the guards can re-sell what you have, it will be taken. The official rules allow only the following property; an aluminium plate, a spoon, a cup, a blanket, pillow and a mosquito net. The easy way is to discretely pay 5,000r for an easy check, or have the whole room, and 20 prisoners property, trashed.

Today’s guard is one of my personal favourites, as he is also a little huugh-haa. His bling is a finely turned, illegal hardwood baton. But its not only the craftsmanship that is so impressive, it is his name or perhaps his exam results, “Mong”, Carved in neat letters and carefully painted in gold. Reluctantly, I pay the money.

18th October

Today we are expecting one of the few NGOs who are actually allowed inside the prison. These are the likes of MSF and the Red Cross, with access to areas closed, even to our embassy. We are informed that today, they will be filming conditions around the hospital, perhaps an indication that things may one day improve.

However, now I realize this was another scam. This time by a corrupt, British, senior police officer and a trashy tabloid reporter from CNN, the only way they could get inside the prison is by bribing authorities.

The problem is that I am still pre-trial, and now I have to fight not only a corrupt judiciary, but now the most powerful TV network in the world. The presumption of innocence, that fundamental right, is totally out the window when the chief executive of a British police force makes your case political and a matter of funding, at a time when they are facing budget cuts. I am furious.
The TV show was subsequently broadcast worldwide, six days before my hearing. It seems that everyone is willing to buy their way into the Cambodian justice system to further their own agenda.
This is my first indication of a conspiracy which involves NGOs, the British government and the easily corrupted Cambodian authorities.

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning.

December

Seven months into my detention, I have seen, heard and experienced much of what there is to keep busy in Prey Sar, I have been exposed to all ten Khmer pop classics, so many times that I have considered removing my eardrums with a chopstick.

I have been trafficked into prostitution at an off site “brothpital”, earning the Don $20 a bang, while I see others indulge in the black market trade of hardcore pornography.
And I have stayed at the prison hospital, where major medical procedures include removing mobile phones from prisoners digestive systems and the treatment of shrapnel injuries from our explosive gas stoves.

I am learning every day that Prey Sar is a concentrated microcosm of everything that is corrupt and rotten in Cambodia, a bit like Hunts Concentrated Tomato Paste – we call it “essence of Kampuchea”.

I figure that the problem with waiting for the person or people who are here to help me, is that they are no doubt stuck behind a very long queue of people waiting to fuck me over, in a system with a 100% conviction rate. Some of these people include;

Lawyers – they pop-up everywhere, like cockroaches. And rather than listen to your instructions, they claim “I know, I know”, in exactly the same way as that motodop who drove you around in large circles, before returning you to the point where you started and asking for $5. Despite the distinctive appearance of total in-competency, every one of these lawyers has a fancy business card, which proudly announces that he (or she) is royalty, a close relative of the judge and a personal adviser to Hun Sen. In fact, I have now met so many of Hun Sen’s personal advisers, that I wonder how he finds time to manage the country so well.

The great thing about lawyers, is there is always another one waiting to take over, and take another fee, and then another fee…

The classic example of this double hit, is provided by Terry, who paid his, (clears throat), lawyer Peng-e-Leng-y $5,000, who then contacts his family in the UK, and claims his fee of $2,000. Of course, he walked into that one, but that was before he arrived here, when we all told him a similar story. I will add that I have received notes and limited support from a couple of well respected lawyers, their general advice, “find another lawyer”.

The sad thing is that once you eventually reach the court, your superstar lawyer and influential socialite, turns into a timid servant of the system and decides that it would be most impolite to argue your case, especially before a judge. Later he will mumble the words, “I did my best” – that is IF you see him again.

Or the other optional, last dash for cash scam, is to re-approach the accused during the period between the hearing, and the verdict announcement. Normally, this is because there is some small problem like, “no have paper”(which translates to “Lexus needs new tyres”), or the other variation – you will get a reduced sentence if you pay make another small payment of only $5,000.

Amnesty – like an honest lawyer, this sits in that strange realm between myth, folk law, rumour and the writings of the Cambodia Daily. There seems to be at least two variations of a similar theme, the first is that you pay $1,000 which nobody seems to know who to; and then you join a long list of people seeking said amnesty.

Amnesty is apparently awarded during the Cambodian New Year, Water Festival and the King’s birthday holidays. But to date, I have never personally known any person who has been granted amnesty.

The second variation on the theme is a similar cash payment, to a mystery beneficiary, for the remote chance of a six month reduction, which can be awarded one a year, before the same holidays. The maximum reduction is six months in any year – after you have served two thirds of your sentence.

Representatives of – occasionally, we receive a mystery visitor, claiming to be a representative of the court or perhaps the plaintiff. These people normally arrive with a small bag of mangos and the message that they know you are innocent, but we need a small payment to be sure. For big fish, negotiations can continue for weeks or months before the case goes to trial, such is the return on the investment (a dodgy business card and a bag of fruit).

Middle men – this is a general “catch all” term for everyone else who volunteers to speak to you while in prison. They always want something.

The classic scam is selling water, yes, not only are there people at Prey Sar prepared to make huge amounts of cash from selling this most basic commodity, there are also middle men who like to add their 25% to the cost of a shower, drink or your laundry.

Water is now my biggest cost (not counting the five lawyers), at around $30 per month, hundreds of times more expensive than Phnom Penh Water Authority – who supply the middle men.
So lucrative is this trade in H2O, that there are frequent challenges to dominate the trade, with the interested parties strutting around like clucking cocks, marking their territory, putting padlocks on water tanks and working out the next way to fuck over fellow inmates.

The next scam (for locals) is by the casino manager, who runs a dice game, 24/7, where players gamble on the roll of a dice and get a 2-1 return on a 1 in 6 chance. Most locals don’t notice the dodgy odds (or the huge pile of cash in the casino’s hands) and believe in luck rather than probability anyway. Other low-ranking prisoners are forced to play, through peer pressure or bullying.

A classic best brother, cellmate scam is, “I can certainly get you out of prison, but first I need just $3,000 more to get myself out.”

Other scams include recommending yet another lawyer or court negotiator, but few foreigners fall for these scams, even fewer can afford to.

Consular support – as a general warning to tourists and expats alike, it is important to understand how your embassy service will deteriorate remarkably, if you find yourself accused of a crime.
While they may not be a direct middle man, they do represent interests that are more profitable than supporting your minimum human rights – such as that of a trial. So it is not the action that harms your position, it is the total lack of action.

The embassy will provide you with a list of good lawyers, who’s general advice is to contact a criminal lawyer. They will bring you mail, but they may or may not help you with outgoing mail – depending on this week’s policy, or who in particular you wish to write to. They will bring you cash from your family, but barely enough to cover water or food – let alone the countless bribes.

They will not discuss the fairness of court process, or attempts of extortion by authorities and they will not help you report such issues.

In short, your rights and status as a citizen, will cease to exist, as will the policies, laws and statutes that support them.

December 25th

Today is much the same as any other day, except for two things;

First, the prison guards have thought of another reason to ask foreigners for money – Christmas.

Second, a good friend sent a care package, which included two large M&S Christmas puddings and plenty of Birds custard – enough to brighten up the day of 9 friends in various cells.

Merry Christmas.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 7

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

September12th

I have now spent nine months detained “pre-trial”, with very little news or information on the process – a situation which I now realise is kidnapping or even human trafficking.

We are not allowed access to information on the criminal justice system (such as law books) but one of the terrorists has managed to smuggle in a copy of “The Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia”. The book is well written, therefore definitely copied from a real country and is in constant demand.

The Criminal Code also demonstrates what I have been told by numerous detainees, both foreign and Khmer – the system is bullshit! The Criminal Code bears absolutely no resemblance to the conduct of authorities or the process in the real world, it is a front and a tool used for extortion; releasing those who pay and imprisoning those who do not.

Today I have been given advance notice of my court hearing – which is tomorrow.

September13th

By prison van, the First Court is around an hour from Prey Sar. A group of guards start collecting detainees from the 100 plus cells at around 06:30.

Around 40 prisoners are due at the First Court for this morning’s session – despite the fact that the court does not have the capacity to hear more than 10 cases.

We are cuffed together in twos and lead towards two mini-vans, the type that seat eight in the back on soft, comfortable foam filled seats. However, the seats have been ripped out by a guerilla, leaving a bare metal floor with jagged, rusty holes from the seat mountings, allowing a close view of the blacktop (or dusty redtop) as it rushes past.

The modernised mini-van has a much larger capacity, guards force 20 prisoners and six guards into the back of each van. Six more guards and the driver, sit in the front, with a small armoury of rusty AK47’s, an assortment of wooden sticks and electronic cattle prods.

The hour long journey to the First Court is hot and extremely uncomfortable. As we reach Norodom Boulevard, the engine starts to smell like a burning labrador, so the driver pulls over and the prisoners have a whip round to buy five bottles of engine water from a Caltex station.

Pouring cold water over the hot engine creates a refreshing sauna effect inside the van with unmistakable notes of hydrocarbons. After a 20 minutes steam, we resume our journey, leaving on the road a collection of cracked engine parts in a pool of oil and water.

We arrive to the expected chaos, the court building is surrounded by photographers and crowded with family members as vans arrive from a number of Phnom Penh prisons.

I meet my girlfriend and her family in the waiting area, which is the normal small, filthy room, packed with far too many people. It appears that the whole court experience is designed to de-humanise and cause maximum stress.

An embassy official informs me that I will appear in court room one and that he is present to observe the process.

Shortly after, I am lead into a large courtroom which, front and centre, has a long raised wood panel bench for three judges, on the left is benches for the prosecutor and the prosecution lawyer. To the right are identical benches for the Clerk and the defence lawyer – which is empty.

I am directed to the dock, which is a semi-circular wooden bar, located in front of, and below the judges – in between the two lawyer benches.

In the dock already are five young Khmer men, who I have never met and are nothing to do with my case. The six of us stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the judge.

Working from one Khmer to the next, the judge asks each in turn a few questions, then makes what seems to be an instant judgement before sending them back to the waiting room one at a time. This appears to be a mass hearing.

After ten minutes (two minutes per case), I am left alone in the dock. My lawyer hasn’t arrived, nor has the lawyer for the corrupt, fruity NGO, which is attempting to profit from my kidnapping. After a few words, my case is postponed.

I return to the waiting room where I see the five Khmers from the court room, grinning and queuing to thumb print the court documents. An English speaking prisoner tells me that they have each paid upto $2,000 for a reduced sentence.

I have already realised that nobody is judged “not-guilty” as everyone is already a pre-trial prisoner – somebody would lose face.

It strikes me as odd that these documents are completed outside of the courtroom, but then I realise that we are away from the view of the public gallery, and the press.

This is the first time I have witnessed mass corruption by the court machine but it won’t be the last. Later I calculate that, if this was typical of the process, the First Court of Phnom Penh alone would earn more than $20m a year.

All forty prisoners are processed through (probably) the worlds fastest court system – in less than two hours. As we are cuffed and packed into the mini-vans, my girlfriend says goodbye and slips me a water bottle of vodka for later.

During the long journey back, the Khmer prisoners seem to cheerfully accept their lot as they ask about each other’s verdicts.

We arrive back at CC2after the lunchtime lock down. Rather than return each prisoner to their own cell, the authorities lock all forty of us in my hospital cell,i ncreasing our cell count from 28 to 68 for the next three hours – thus ensuring that TB and the associated NGOs continue to proliferate at Prey Sar.

I am six months into my pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison, an experience not unlike being taken hostage. I have even been asked to pay a $15k ransom, not only on my freedom, but on my life as an innocent man.

Each day I wonder, would it have been better to pay, rather than take the moral high ground? Even four years later, it is impossible to know if this was the right decision.

What I do know now is that the laws, policies, procedures and people who are put in place to act in the interests of justice – just don’t give a shit.

Especially those from your own country.

4th October

It is a well known fact that the Khmer language is inefficient. Anyone who has heard a public speech by, for example, Hun Sen will know that what can normally be said in a few English words, often takes hours in Khmer.

It is a little known fact that there is one, single Khmer word that is more efficient than the English equivalent. This word is “huugh-haa”.

The English translation is “an especially annoying person, who acts as if they are wealthy by strutting around like a clucking cock, while flaunting expensive, but often fake or stolen items of Asian bling”.
Outside of prison, a typical example of huugh-haa, is that annoying guy in the re sprayed Lexus, who, while speaking on his fake iPhone 8, gives you the “yes, this is mine” look as he drives up the wrong side of the road.

The truth though is that this man has eight kids and no job. To fund his ringer Lexus, he has sold 11 of his children’s kidneys to a Triad gang, leaving them with only 5 to share between them.

Inside prison, it is a little more difficult to flaunt your wealth, be it imaginary wealth, or real. Here are the top 10 huugh-haa items in Prey Sar;

10 – Lexus brand boxer shorts
Bling on a budget, genuine Lexus boxers are the only briefs worth anything in Prey Sar – “brief” of course, includes lawyers.

9 – Member augmentation
For reasons unknown, a high percentage of young prisoners, consider it a good idea to enhance themselves with glass beads, inserted using a sharpened toothbrush handle. Not the kind of bling you can flaunt – until you are in hospital.

8 – Tailor made prison uniform
This option screams “I’ve got connections”, or maybe a kid sister working in the Khmer Bling Garment Factory International Ltd.

7 – A selection of colour biros
Together with the tailored uniform and displayed in the breast pocket, this subtle extra, upgrades your ranking and your perceived IQ.

6 – Prison ink
….”He’s getting ink done, getting a tattoo…”, all that is required is a small electric motor, a car battery, a fine guitar string and the colour biros. But remember, Prey Sar rules state, “no homosexual tattoos” – still, the male tramp stamp is popular among the mid-level huugh-haa.

5 – Flintstone gym
For those who like to buff themselves, a gym made from lumps of concrete and wooden sticks.

4 – A bicycle
Previously the exclusive domain of prison guards, a pushbike is a powerful upgrade. The only problem is that it must be kept inside the overcrowded cells – due to theft.

3 – A fish tank
Nothing says “this is my space” better than an aquarium filled with tomorrow’s lunch.

2 – Cable TV
The latest craze amongst the super-lazy bling elite, non-stop re-runs of Jeremy Clarkson – talking about Lexus SUV’s.

1 – A designer cup
Cheap, effective, portable bling. The ultimate Lexus branded version being in brushed stainless, with a plastic cap and spout similar to a toddlers beaker.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 6

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

It’s been a week since my arrival at the brothpital, just enough time to get an idea of the routine and in between tricks, I have spent this week getting to know my new neighbours.

Cambodia’s very first terrorist is a friendly and witty Bangladeshi named Bob. The right side of his body is affected by a previous stroke but he maintains his pride and sense of humour. Today his wife has brought a terrorisingly good curry for us all to share and after serving, mid-meal she casually mentions that she has had to sell their baby, in order to pay the requested $500 prison medical costs. The awkward silence is broken as I crunch another excellent poppadom.

Clearly Bobs case is a big misunderstanding. While going about his normal business of buying and selling old watches, he somehow got confused with a group plotting to blow up a number of embassies – well, who hasn’t? The thing is, I really think he is just a nice old man. Yes, he prays five times a day, and he certainly knows his curries – but surely a terrorist would be a bit more aggressive? Then there is the evidence; bombs? No. Encrypted jihad emails? No. Guns? No. Just old watches.

After a week, I finally decide that his case is purely political and that Cambodia is now elevated to the list of those top nations which have been targeted by international terrorist organisations; it is therefore now a real country. Hopefully, this will mean membership to some ineffective organisation, an annual dinner and dance, plus, of course, more NGO funding.

The neighbour to my right is a quiet, blind Vietnamese man who’s physical condition has deteriorated so much during imprisonment, that as well as his sight, he has also lost most of the use of his arms and legs. Sleeping on the floor, he is constantly bitten by bugs and mosquitoes and has taken to itching these with a razor blade. As a result, he is covered in bites and cuts.

He speaks only a few words that I can understand; coffee, cigarette and Dung – which is his name. I imagine his situation as a kind of torture; he is in darkness, on the floor in a room full of foreign voices and Khmer karaoke.
The sister of my girlfriend takes the kind initiative of cleaning his bedding, possibly for the first time in months, emptying his piss bottle and his bottle of dog-ends. Every day, I make sure he gets some coffee and cigarettes, and despite the torture, I see this once handsome man offer a friendly smile.

The doctor arrives for his daily rounds, which is a standard 5 minute show, to convince somebody, somewhere, that this is a hospital, he is a doctor and therefore deserves a salary. I am not convinced. In the hour before, a young, epileptic prisoner has taken everybody’s blood pressure and in between his own seizures, recorded the results in a small school notebook with a picture of a cucumber on the front.

The doctor pretends to read the results as he hooks up an IV bottle containing a fluorescent yellow liquid, which is either radioactive waste or the blind man’s piss bottle. Next, he administers a daily “vitamin injection”, into the bare arses of the younger Khmer patients. This puzzles me as I try to work out if; a – he is a pervert, b – a sadist, c – he is conducting secret drug tests or d – he has some huge stock pile of old military or NGO drugs.

Finally, he hands out some Paracetamol tablets and leaves after 4minutes 20 seconds – his best time this week.

The men’s ward is separated from the woman’s by a corridor which also lead to the communal showers and toilets. One of the odd benefits of this is that the women often visit with their new-born babies. Personally I find the sight of over-swollen glands and the smell of milky vomit quite disturbing, however the young mums carrying their miniature motorbike thieves, together seem to bring a ray of sunshine into the ward.

The oldest guy in the ward is a Chinese man who is aged around 90, he lights up at the sight of the young visitors and performs a wobbly jig pulling a face which brings welcome laughter all around.

It is genuinely appalling that children can still be born into punishment and imprisonment but these young mothers do what they can to provide for their kids and the guys in our ward offer all the support they can.

One of the young mothers is believed to be a fortune teller, who clearly failed to predict or avoid her own incarceration, while pregnant. She is now reading my girlfriends palm and speaking in tongues.
My girlfriend listens intently, looks at the baby, the swollen breasts and then at me – I get the trafficked feeling that she is about to spend another $20on a quiet night in.

And this is about the limits of the “brothpital” routine, by day a respectable medical facility, a doctor, glow in the dark medicines and family friendly visiting hours – by night, a sleazy, alcohol fuelled knocking shop.
Prisoners are not permitted to exercise outside as there is no security beyond the corridor. Despite the benefits; the cost of food, transport and conjugal visits (the payments for my own trafficking) are well above my now limited budget.

After a month and having made the vig, I weigh the pros and cons of the brothpital and then request a move back to Prey Sar in the hope that the Don will cancel the contract and restore my VIP privileges.

On the return journey to Prey Sar, I start to wonder if I have made the right decision, but this time, I am not handcuffed and there is only one guard armed with an AK47 – rather than five. I sense that the Don is pleased with my earnings as a prostitute and that I have been accepted back into his VIP family.

I arrive back at Prey Sar and I am admitted to the on-site prison hospital, which is a collection of six filthy, infested wards with a slightly different class of sick and wealthy prisoners. The toilets are blocked with human waste and the water tanks empty but a friendly Taiwanese man named Meng finds me a bed between a TB patient and another guy with a serious pornography addiction. But the big difference for me is that once more, I can get outside into the prison gardens. It appears that the hit has been called off.

After a month of being a prostitute, at an offsite prison hospital, now dubbed the “brothpital”, I have returned to the squalor of the Prey Sar prison hospital. The cell is around 6m square, with 18 rusty metal beds which look like they were stolen from the set of M*A*S*H. There are three main problems with the sleeping arrangements; first, 28 prisoners share the 18 beds and its only after the first night listening to my neighbour coughing his lungs up, that I am told he has ebola.

The second problem is that the beds are too short for your average big nosed white man. The metal beds have a tubular steel head and foot frame. As a result, you cannot lay flat or straighten your legs, which is very uncomfortable. And third, there is no bedding. Just a base of rusty metal slats which serve the dual purpose of allowing the easy drainage of vomit and other bodily excreta, while providing an ideal environment – and easy access to flesh – for swarms of mosquitos.

The bathroom consists of two squat toilets with a small brick tank of swamp water for flushing, which is carried in daily from a ditch in the hospital grounds. There is no electric light and no sunlight reaches the bathroom – as a result, it is filthy and rarely cleaned. Once again, I will have to pay for clean water for showering, drinking, cooking etc. This amounts to my biggest single expense of $35 a month. Together with a charge of $15 for using an electric fan, around half of my now very limited budget is spent paying for my prison stay.

My hospital cell mates are another mixed bunch of super-contagious coughers, spitters and vomiters, plus mid-level VIPs who have paid the $500 change for a “comfortable” hospital bed – the alternative being the bare concrete floor in the block. For the $500 charge, those who have declared themselves more important are allowed the privilege of being let out for exercise before the sick people, who are generally considered an unsightly nuisance and who are just getting in the way of further business.

This discrimination results in frequent bundles and fights at the doors, the authorities have respond by appointing a group of Khmer prisoners as doormen, giving licence to use violence against any non-paying sick person.

My immediate neighbours include the ebola patient zero on one side and yet another victim of the much more serious Prey Sar pornography addiction syndrome. His treatment includes a 14inch TV and a DVD player, which he somehow manages to fit in his bed.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 5

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

We walk into the hospital, through the front door, in the middle of the building. To the left and right, there are corridors leading to wards, straight ahead a ramp, rather than stairs, lead to the upper floors. There is nobody around. The hospital looks new, but dated. A little worn, a little dirty with age rather than use – certainly not the normal filthy, stinking, piss-stained, run down and broken public buildings that you would normally see.

We walk up the ramp which has a gentle gradient, up a third of a floor then turn 90 degrees right, another third then turn right, another third and we are on the first floor – empty corridors, nobody. Silence. We climb two more floors to the third floor and then take the corridor to the right. We walk between hospital wards to the left and the right, each ward is full of brand new equipment – but no patients. Through glass doors I can see empty hospital beds, trolleys, chairs, screens and all kinds of stainless steel equipment – all wrapped in plastic, all unused.

Rendition, they are going to torture me, electrodes on the testicles or perhaps they will surf-board me before they double-tap me with a stainless steel hammer. I should have made the vig.

Towards the end of the corridor we finally find signs of life, prison officers standing guard, or in this case playing cards, outside a door built across the last 30m of the corridor. I finally figure out that this must be one of the UNTAC hospitals that had been built and staffed in the early 90’s but never used.

The wards used by the prison are a simple layout; on the right is a ward of women prisoners, mostly with young babies – born into captivity. To the left, a ward for male prisoners. Just off the central corridor, showers and toilets. I am escorted into the male section and showed to a bed. The ward is around 20m x 5m with a space of a meter between each bed. Through the window, there is a partial view of a red temple and a statue. I can see the city but it’s a strange angle.

The patients are a curious bunch, a very old Chinese or Taiwanese man, I guess in his 90’s. Old but healthy and lucid. Next to me, a Vietnamese man is the only prisoner sleeping on the floor, I quickly realise that he is blind and unable to walk. Beside him he has three small water bottles, one used as an ash-tray, one with drinking water and the last, half full of urine. Being blind, he uses his sense of smell to tell them apart.

In the bed opposite is a friendly looking Khmer, he has a surgical scar on his belly and everything below that point has wasted away to skin and bone. Next to him is a Bangladesh man, I had already heard of him, a terrorist, yet he is elderly and weak, his body half crippled by a stroke, he has friendly eyes. Certainly no Bin Laden.

These are the sick and the old. The other prisoners, around seven more, are healthy looking; perhaps slightly overweight but nothing that couldn’t be dealt with at the Prey Sar hospital – curious.

Apart from the spacious ward, one other benefit is immediately clear. There are visitors in the room, wives, girlfriends, family. It all seems very relaxed, most families have brought meals in metal containers plus fruit and drinks. Through the remainder of the day, I learn that the ward has a mixture of genuine sick people, plus some very rich people. If I am considered a VIP, these guys are the high rollers; whales.

The first problem I encounter is that there is no food or drinking water provided – your family is expected to bring that. The alternative is to ask a guard to bring food from a nearby restaurant. This is a nice change but sounds expensive. The problem however resolves itself as my girlfriend walks in with most of her family behind, each is carrying a small water bottle with a couple of sips taken and the drinking straw fallen back inside. This normally means one thing – vodka. I feel better already.

Over the next hour, my girlfriend arranges food and drinking water before she is told that she must go, it is 5:00PM and the sick people need to rest. Not knowing if my heart will see me through the night, I get hugs from the family and my girlfriend promises to return the next morning.

At 6:00PM the guards lock the door to the ward and the corridor, which also means that there is no access to the showers or the toilets until 6:00AM. I had already had a shower which means that the only problem is the toilet. The terrorist tells me that everyone uses water bottles – nice.

Then at 6:30PM, I hear the doors unlock and a guard arrives with a case of Angkor beer, he is followed by another man with three girls- average age 19, who stand in a line for inspection. One of the healthier patients, a fat guy with a serpent tattoo on his back, chooses the younger looking of the three girls and the other two are lead away. The first guard takes payment and leaves, locking the door.

The other healthy looking patients immediately start what looks like a well established routine. Beds are shifted, screens are moved and bed sheets are hung from the window bars and the ceiling. This creates a private sleeping area at the end of the ward. The problem of intimate noises is negated using a TV and a DVD player, which features many of my favourite karaoke tunes from Prey Sar.

But first, four or five prisoners plus one taxi girl must drink the case of Angkor beer – in a UN hospital ward with no toilets. I start to wonder if I am hallucinating – I take a swig of vodka, just to be sure. The elderly Chinese man stands up, wobbles a bit and then takes a noisy shit into a small green bucket – nobody else seems to notice. The terrorist is praying to the East as the Vietnamese man is about to drink a bottle of dog ends. I take another large swig of vodka and hand the remaining quarter bottle to the blind man who gives a thankful smile – now he has four bottles.

As the evening progresses the case of beer is replaced by water bottles full of urine and the wealthy Khmers compete with the karaoke to see who can make the most noise. The girl is taken by the tattooed man, to the private sleeping area. Despite the karaoke, I hear complaints from the girl throughout the night.

At first light the next morning, the prisoners start work on cleaning up. The sheets are taken down, the screens and beds moved back to the original positions. The Angkor cans are crushed flat using a brick and the bottles of piss are dumped into the rubbish bin. The door opens at 6:00AM and, apart from a young woman leaving, everything looks normal.

At 7:00AM, a man claiming to be a doctor arrives, the first I have seen since my arrival. In the ward is a bunch of elderly and sick patients plus another group who are now fast asleep. The doctor does his rounds, handing out a few vitamin pills and some paracetamol. All is well and he leaves after only 5 minutes. “Hey! What about me, my ticker is on the fritz. Code blue. Bring the cart. Doctor, 200mg multi-vitamins – stat!” – yeh, I’ve seen House.

At 10:00AM my girlfriend returns, this time she brings food and soft drinks for lunch. She tells me that the guard outside has taken $20 from her so she can stay the night. Of course, this is quite acceptable in practice and who am I to disappoint my girlfriend – its my duty. But the principle is something else. Here I am, a man with a dodgy ticker, detained under the suppression of human trafficking law and I am being pimped out by a police guard in a UN prison “brothpital”.

Meanwhile the Don has put a contract out on my life, because I didn’t go to his wedding – but first I must repay my debt pulling tricks for $20 a pop. How on earth am I going to sleep with all of this on my mind. Charged under the law for the suppression of human trafficking, I have spent my first five months held on pre-trial detention in a small Prey Sar prison cell, along with a cross section of the criminal underworld and the complete Hugh Hefner (directors cut) DVD box set. A donation of 50 reil to the directors wedding party, has been taken as a sign of disrespect. As a VIP prisoner, I am expected to make the vig, on request.

To show his strength, the Don has ordered a hit. But these are changing times, it is 2011, there are human rights NGO sand the good old days of a knock on the head with a silver plated Pol Pot anniversary hammer are long gone. This needs a different approach.

First, misdirection. The prison doctor has diagnosed a weak heart, the prognosis is touch and go, 50:50 at best. My only chance of survival is a transfer to a specialist off-site hospital, built and equipped in the 1990s by the UN and then forgotten.

Step two, bondage. I am to be held in a secret prison ward, where I will be pimped out by police guards, to my girlfriend, for $20 a trick, until the Don considers the vig repaid.

Step three, the hit.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 4

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

I am now three months into my stay at the exclusive VIP suite,33A, at Prey Sar prison.

I share my cell with the cream of corruption: a killer – who is also a pornography connoisseur, a rich General’s son – who has been sent to Prey Sar by his angry father, a drug dealer – the only person who I have ever met who sleeps with his eyes open, an American returnee – who is not named Elvis, a very ugly lady-boy – who’s notable feature(s) is a large pair of breasts, 13 bike thieves – aged between 12 and 23 and an obsessive compulsive who insists on jogging (or stomping) on the spot, at 05:00 every morning.

While I read the bestselling thriller, “What to do when some- body dies”, kindly provided by my embassy, I note how my cell mates pass the time; Eating rice, while glancing at lady-boys breasts, viewing the killers endless porn marathon, comparing with lady-boys breasts, smoking, followed by staring at lady-boys breasts, playing cards, followed by watching lady-boys breasts, singing karaoke, at the lady- boys breasts and playing with the old chap, while cupping lady-boys breasts.

The rainy season has finally arrived, bringing slightly cooler, though humid weather and an ankle deep lake of sewerage. However, inside Prey Sar, there is another benefit – rain water is slightly cheaper!

At some point, in the distant past, some NGO did something useful and fitted 16 x 5,000 litre rainwater storage tanks around the remand block A. The rainwater falling on the massive red tile roof is piped into large blue plastic tanks. Logic would suggest that the cool, clear rainwater would be given to prisoners for showering, helping reduce the current scabies epidemic. The storage capacity would allow 4 buckets of water for each of the 1,000 detainees in block A.

Logic of course doesn’t prevail here and overnight the taps at the base of each tank has been padlocked closed and the tanks are now literally overflowing – wasting this precious resource.
The queue of Khmer prisoners, each carrying a 20l paint bucket, are informed by a stick welding Vietnamese prisoner, who is responsible for the grey market water trade, that rainwater is priced at 500r a bucket.

While this is 45 times more expensive than Phnom Penh City water, it is half the price of the shower water which is delivered daily by truck in white plastic bottles. There are plenty of takers as the line of grinning inmates, wait to pay – for rainwater – in a country which has no shortage of this basic commodity.

The drains around the prison are not maintained during the dry season or cleared before the wet season and the resulting mess is quite predictable. First, a mass of cockroaches crawl out from the drains and climb the prison building, followed by rats the size of donkeys and then raw shit.

It is the rats that now have a group of Khmer prisoners excited – lunch! I watch as they work together in order to corner the rats and then club them to death with a stick. I am thankful that I am in a VIP cell, where rat meat is only delivered in fillet, soup or sausage form. Either way, I decide that I will play it extra safe tonight and make myself a packet of chicken noodles.

The prison routine is designed so that nearly everyone can understand. There are two daily work sessions, the first doors are opened around 8AM for workers who are responsible for carrying “brown water”, to replenish the brick tanks inside each cell. The brown water is pumped in from a storage reservoir, just outside the prison walls. Some deal with the daily delivery and distribution of “clean” shower water, in white bottles and drinking water, in the standard 20l blue bottles. The clean water is delivered twice daily on trucks which carry around 400, 20l bottles. Others are responsible for sweeping the yard and carrying buckets of putrid garbage to the prison dump.

Khmer prisoners are lead out into the exercise yard, a room at a time, where they are forced to stand in the burning heat and recite the new prison rules – word for word. Prisoners are sent back to cells at around 11AM, when the lunchtime meal of soup and rice is delivered, and the prison is locked down for lunchtime. The afternoon session is roughly the same, starting around 2PM and ending at 4PM. Simple. If you can’t work it out by the end of the first week, you must be retarded.

One of the only English speaking prisoners in my cell is a Khmer/ American returnee. Like the majority of returnees I have met since, he is polite, well spoken, helpful and reasonably well educated, having been in America for most of his life. The reason he has returned is that he had been convicted of a crime in America and following a US prison sentence, he was sent back to Cambodia – a country which he doesn’t know, where he has no surviving relatives and where there is no social support system. He could certainly function as a constructive member of society, but instead, he has been sent to Prey Sar.

Many of the returnees in his situation, go by an English name, but not Bill, Steve or John but (yo! mo-fo! stick a cap in your ass!) street names like Tank, Shotgun, Trip and in the case of my cell mate – Trigger.

Trigger has a great sense of humour and he is good company, but having never seen an episode of Only Fools and Horses, he doesn’t understand why his action-man name makes me smile. On returning to my cell, I am surprised to receive a wedding invitation, one of my cellmates informs me that as privileged, VIP prisoners, it is quite common to be invited to weddings, by guards or in this case, by the Director himself.

I am quite excited at the prospect of getting some decent food and perhaps a few drinks, but it appears that I haven’t fully understood the situation. My cellmate, Trigger, continues to explain that while I am certainly invited to the wedding, it will not be possible for me to attend because I am in prison. Trigger is certainly living up to his name today.

So the correct protocol in the unfortunate event that you cannot attend, is to fill the oversized envelope with cash, which will then be collected by the room leader, the block chief and finally the Director. Still, it’s the thought that matters. So I think for a moment and then into the envelope, I put a crisp new 50 reil note, that I had been saving for a situation just like this.

While on the subject of money, the room leader announces that block A will shortly have a new exercise area. However, authorities require a donation of $50 from each cell to complete the project. Wonderful.

At this time, block A consisted of just the cell block, plus, in the yard; a tin hut -single seat – barber shop and the wooden market shack. It is lucky then, that the Directors wife, just happens to own a very competitive building supply business. As VIP prisoners, we are expected to grin like retards and, on request, hand over unlimited handfuls of cash for major improvement projects such as this. I struggle under the circumstances to grin like my cell mates, but I hand over $10, just to keep the peace.

There are 48 cells in block A, which means that our new exercise area will have a total budget $2,400, I visualise a large cement slab, perhaps a basketball court, volleyball or a football pitch. Perhaps a gym area with some weights. The following day, two small trucks arrive, one of sand and another with 20 bags of Portland cement – maximum cost $150. It takes a group of volunteers an- other day to mix and lay a wafer thin layer of cement 10m x 20m, straight on top of grass and mud. The finish resembles a miniature lunar landscape, where prisoners can now stand in the rain, and recite the prison rules.

I am still held on pre-trial detention, charged with a crime that is just not possible. The downside seems to be that the Cambodian police are just perfect. A 100% detection rate, 100% conviction. Every day since my arrival, I have been subjected to continuous karaoke, inhuman heat and the never ending ecstatic screams of my killer cell mate’s porn collection. Plus the flies. And the all night card games. And the stupid lady-boy jiggling her/his tits.

Today I am sick. I have a headache. So I request permission to leave block A and seek the expert advice of our very own vet, who is also a doctor. On the side. After many forms, I walk to the prison hospital, which is around 400m from block A.

I explain that I have a headache and I would like some pain killers. It’s a gift doc, an easy one. But he is Khmer and has seen “House” on AXN, he no doubt believes that my headache is the physical symptom of a much more serious problem. Probably lupus. He checks my arms and legs and appears a little surprised that they are all there. Not lupus, so it must be my heart or kidney stones. As the prison MRI is sadly missing, the doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to my kidneys. The doctor fills a small bag with funny coloured pills and I return to my cell, picking out the paracetamol on route.

That afternoon, two guards arrive with handcuffs to take me away. My cellmate, Trigger, translates the bad news – I have a weak heart and I am being transferred to an off-site hospital. I consider the situation, I am innocent. The police, 100% detection rate. The courts, 100% conviction rate. I have a headache. Cambodian prison doctor – shit, I’m going to die. The guards however are trained professionals, I am cuffed and forcefully removed, my wrists snap and my hands turn into purple balloons. We walk to a prison van where we join three more guards with AK47 assault rifles – rust coloured. Five guards, a driver and three guns – for one prisoner, who judging from the prognosis, is unlikely to survive the night. I think of the 50 reil gift for the directors wedding party – I didn’t make the vig. And now he will shoot me in the head, a fake prison break, my chest tightens as we drive out towards Phnom Penh.

Monivong hospital is not on Monivong, it is just over the Monivong bridge in the Chbar Ampouv area of Phnom Penh, somewhere to the right of highway 1. The hospital is a large four story, rectangular building with a red cross painted on the front, a car park for 40 cars – empty. The perfect place for a Mafia style execution.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 3

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

Confident of a legal breakthrough, I signed up my new lawyer, paid another fee and we arranged to meet again next week to go through the case file. Hiring another lawyer hasn’t helped my financial situation, clearly I am no longer working, I have my own family to support as well as having to pay for my imprisonment. In my first month, I have spent $330 for my prison stay, plus $200 for visits – I could easily find a cheaper hotel. The costs are really starting to mount up and I will need to get a control of this forced spending.

The situation does not improve the following week, my first, absent bodied, lawyer had met with my new, that’s an alibi, lawyer resulting in the perfect lawyer storm.

The fruity NGO has somehow discovered my new evidence, which has resulted in the alleged victims changing their stories. Now, nothing happened on the day the photographs were taken – the crimes happened on an earlier day, we still don’t have a date, but it was a Saturday. There are still massive holes in the stories, conflicting versions of a crime or crimes committed the year before I arrived in Cambodia (now on an earlier date), by a man named John, not to mention the complete absence of any evidence or even a crime location.

But the really bad news came from the court, who are now demanding payment of $15,000 for a “reduced sentence”. Suddenly I develop my own ability for strings of four letter words, the bottom line being this; I am innocent, I will be proven innocent and I will not pay for a “reduced sentence” – all I want from the court is a fair trial.

It is my 4th week in the pre-trial, block A, at Prey Sar prison. I have settled into the routine of a VIP prisoner, languishing in a 5m x 4m, superheated concrete box with 15 Khmers, a small, tinny MP3 music system featuring only “the top 20 Cambodian Karaoke greats” (well, what else would anyone need) and a portable DVD player with Fred West’s under the counter pornography collection. As normal, I relax in the corner with two sharp pencils poked up my nose, thinking of my favourite dictators.

Today, Mark will introduce me to the prison phone system. Outside, using a public phone is simple – why would this be any different? First, I have to fill in the official Prey Sar form. This includes the name, address and phone number of the person I wish to call, my own details, cell number, plus the relationship to that person or the reason for the call – finally, a thumbprint is required to make the request proper and legally binding.

There is a huge demand for the phones, so logically, the phone forms are completed in a cramped and dark space – under the stairs. A prisoner, who’s higher status is denoted by the three different coloured disposable pens in the breast pocket of his custom made blue prison shirt, transfers the information on my form, onto his master form – I see from his smug smile that he is in a Khmer state of bureaucratic orgasm. I pay the required 10,000r (for 3minutes) and then I wait to find out if first, I am allowed to use the phone and second, when, which could be any random time between now and 2015. Then I wait, and wait.

The following morning I am called to use the phone, but it’s not that simple, the multi-pen prisoner from the previous day must first find all 20 people on his master form, but he is an idiot. So 19 of us wait, queuing in the burning sun while the idiot searches for the missing prisoner, who may have a visit, be at court, or he may have died overnight while waiting to use the phone. Finally, the missing prisoner arrives, with a stupid grin on his face and I conclude that he is also an idiot.

We are counted out of the block A gate, towards the hospital building, where the phones are strategically positioned for use as a method of spreading TB and other deadly diseases into random cells throughout the prison. The phones are mobile desk phones of the type sent by the Vietnam military for spying on the Khmer government. Ten phones are kept on five school desks, which are too small for anyone older than four.

The chaos is predictable, 20 prisoners, trying to use 10 phones in a small, noisy room. Guards watch the desk phone display to ensure that you are disconnected at 4m 59s through nothing more technical than a finger. I manage a brief conversation with my girlfriend, in which I ask her to buy me a $15 mobile phone for the next visit.

After my call, I wait in the hospital grounds while the other prisoners finish calls. I am met by an extremely ugly, bearded man who makes a horrible noise with his mouth oh, he is Greek. I struggle for a reason to be somewhere else but, surrounded by a high fence and men with rusty AK47’s, this is difficult under the circumstances.

Christian introduces himself and tells me that he has been framed, along with another, by a young prostitute near Wat Phnom. I struggle to look interested and search in desperate hope for a passing bus, which I plan to throw myself under. I guess that his story is, in part, due to his unfortunate appearance, kind of Captain Birds Eye meets Gandalf the Grey. A grey beard that is so long that it is wrapped twice around his neck and still reaches his waist. A hideous witches nose, complete with a hairy lump, means there is absolutely no way he can hope for mistaken identity.

He explains that he did not have sex with a young girl, who was working the streets near Wat Phnom, but that he only took her on his bike so as he could apply some “cream” to her legs. Despite the overwhelming smell of bullshit, he does however raise one valid point, which relates to his case, a fruity NGO and the general legal process in Cambodia.

The young girl in question was responsible for the imprisonment of two men at Prey Sar. The cases that are linked by this single girl and the fruity NGO are however, quite different. The first man was sentenced to only two years after it was proven, in court, that the girl was 18 years old. In the later case of the Greek man, the girl was proven in court to have been 15 years old. The inconsistencies in these cases highlights the issue with the Cambodian justice system.

The first man had instructed his lawyer to track down commune officials from the girls home, in order to obtain her proof of age, for evidence at court – a document which may or may not be genuine. The Greek man did not obtain the same evidence, however, as his case was heard at a later date, he did rely on this “finding of fact” as evidence. He was not successful and was sentenced to eight years for buying prostitution from the same 18 year old, who was found in this case to be under 15.

The truth may well be that both men deserve to be imprisoned, however, the court has made two completely different findings regarding the same girl, presented by the same fruity NGO – this is concerning.

I return to my cell to find that we have been issued with a new set of bi-lingual prison rules, the highlights being as follows; #4 It is forbidden to make sexual between man and man #6 No homosexual tattoos #9 No money The latter being the hot topic of the moment. In a prison where you have to pay for essentials such as water, food and board, cash is essential, however, when you receive US$, you must convert this to Khmer riel at a rate around 10% worse than outside.

The new twist is that your Khmer riel must be changed for the new Prey Sar prison currency. This is a printed token, which at the time of exchange, has an official rubber stamp applied – with an expiry date. This ensures that there is a constant stream of new money and prisoners are forced to spend their tokens quickly – expired tokens are 100% profit. It also means that the prison is able to take all the real money (I mean this very loosely) and replace this with actual worthless bits of paper – mmm, money that becomes worthless, perhaps the governments of the West could develop a new fiscal policy based on Prey Sar, Tokens from Asian Retarded Prison Systems – or TARPS.

It is May and we are into the hottest part of the year, currently we pay for the “VIP” privilege to have a small electric fan in our cell. Today’s problem is the block chief has been drinking and gambling and he is now having problems making the vig. If he doesn’t pay the Don, he may well wake to find a pigs head in his hammock. The solution is simple, take all of our fans, wait until the hottest part of the day and sell them back. This is the first time Mark and I have seen this particular scam and we respond with understandable anger. The resulting confrontation ends with Mark being pushed onto a concrete table by the drunk block chief, and with me being attacked by the deranged old man who proceeds to threaten me with a tazer. We stand our ground, drawing a small crowd of Khmers – one of the stolen fans is returned, the other is still missing and later becomes the basis of Marks crusade for justice and the eventual disappearance of the guard in question.

The prison market at this time, was a large rattan table, covered in rotting bits of meat, rotting vegetables, topped with flies and maggots. Plus a few metal lock boxes filled with simple groceries, cigarettes, toiletries and other items such as plates and cups. The market, for want of a better word, is staffed by prisoners under the close supervision of prison guards. Prices are marked up by as much as 50% as it’s impossible to shop around. Those prisoners who wish to survive malnutrition, purchase their own food and cook inside the crowded cells using small, single ring gas cookers, which are manufactured using pressed metal and sold for $7 by the same companies who used to supply the country with land mines.

The gas cookers use an aerosol can of butane gas, which is refillable. However, in a system that is based only on money and profit, the gas cans get worn, then rusty and eventually explode. This results in a fireball and a cloud of filthy, rusty shrapnel. The first aid process is quite simple, burnt prisoners are transported to the prison hospital in a wheelbarrow, where their shrapnel is removed and then, due to a shortage of beds, they are left on the hospital floor.

The problem during the hot season is that there are now so many burns patients in the hospital, that the “high rolling VIPs “who pay up to $500 for a hospital bed, are now complaining that they have to step over unsightly sick people on the way to the en-suite – something needs to be done before profits are affected. The solution is as simple as the genius that came up with it. First, in the interests of safety, all cookers and gas cans are to be confiscated. Then, each cell can buy a large clay BBQ and a bag of charcoal which will take 2hours to light, 5 minutes to boil the kettle and will then sit in the corner of the cell, like a miniature nuclear reactor pumping out heat and carbon monoxide for the next 4 years.

The hospital crisis is avoided and the burns patients are slowly replaced by quieter, less unsightly prisoners, in a carbon monoxide induced coma. The market enjoys a boom in clay BBQ supplies and by the end of the hot season, we are forced to purchase brand new pressed metal cookers and gas cans – all profits going to the Don.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 2

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

I am handcuffed to the back of a police pickup truck on a wooden bench. I have no idea where Prey Sar prison is located, but I am told the journey is around 40 minutes. After three days of police and court nonsense, the court has managed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, that the system is total bollocks.

I am now to be held on pre-trial detention, while my case is to be investigated. In truth, I have no idea what is going on. The British embassy did bring me a list of local lawyers and a paperback book. The list of lawyers may be quite helpful if I wanted to open a soup restaurant or a hostess bar, but for criminal case, it is a worthless box ticking document. The paperback book is slightly less useless, but I have now read it three times.

We drive across the city from the central police station, near the Intercontinental, along streets 271and 721, past what was, three days earlier, my home and out towards the killing fields. The city falls away to the familiar Khmer countryside, palm trees, fields of rice and a potholed gravel road, lined with discarded plastic bags.

We arrive at the prison compound, the 5m walls are topped with broken bottles and razor wire, guard towers spaced at regular intervals, each with a single guard and an AK47. The truck stops outside a massive green metal gate, a smaller door opens to the main guardhouse and the visitors area. I am taken inside the guardhouse and my police escorts leave.

With the instincts of a magpie, one of the guards searches my trouser pockets, where an hour earlier, I had placed $80 handed to me by my girlfriend. I am briefly left to my own devices while the guards aggressively discuss the redistribution of my recently received wealth. Only after the excitement, and the money, passes does a guard return to ask for my name and the details of my case.

I am taken through the guardhouse and the visitors area, which is a group of concrete tables, the type designed to look like noddy trees, in a quiet, well maintained garden. It is lunchtime, everything is silent, there is no sign of other prisoners. On through another green metal door set in another 5m high wall, the scene changes dramatically.

It is a large site, at least one square kilometre – a wasteland with some buildings – but no people. I am escorted left, to the prison “hospital”, I am met by a medical professional who’s eyes are pointing in alarmingly different directions, he simultaneously measures my weight and height before I am escorted away.

There is still no sign of other prisoners as we approach one of three cell blocks, a massive two story concrete box for keeping people, measuring around 100m x 30m. I hear the first signs of other life, the combined hum of 1000 voices shouting, banging and drumming. I have arrived at block A, which is the remand or pre-trial block. As the door is opened, I feel a wave of heat, noise and the stench of shit and rotting garbage.

I am taken into one of 48 cells, this one containing 24 prisoners in a space of 5m x 4m, which includes a hole in the floor bathroom, with a small water tank half full of brown water. There are no locks and doors as prisoners are allowed out to exercise or work. I am taken to meet the block chief, this time I have the help of an American Khmer translator, named Tank, one of many incompetent fixers who are generally best avoided – but I am new blood.

I am offered the one-time opportunity to move to a so called VIP cell, where for a convenient monthly fee, the number of prisoners will be limited to only 16 and I will be allowed to have an electric fan and sometimes electricity. I wonder how I got to be so lucky and accept the upgrade as if I had just been bumped from cattle to business class. I concede to the fact that, within hours, I am now $50 in debt for the move and $30 more for my first VIP monthly payment.

On the plus side, however, my new cell is less crowded, cleaner and an arrangement of electric fans helps keep the hot air moving. The bathroom is the same, a little less filthy but it also has the same brown water tank. I am allocated a sleeping space on the floor, between the bathroom and the cell door, which means that whenever the door is open, I must pack away my bedding and move. I will spend my first sleepless night, shoulder to shoulder with prisoners either side and four hammocks suspended inches above me.

Another prisoner explains that bottled water must be purchased for showering, cooking and laundry the cost is 1,000r for 18ltr. The standard blue 20ltr drinking water must also be purchased for 5,000r. Water will cost around $30 per month, ten times my household bill, I calculate that the prison water business is worth $90k per month, or $1.08m per year – a sole water company has the contract. We are locked down at 4:00pm, some prisoners secrete mobile phones while others crack out the ice. A portable DVD player is showing back to back porn, featuring an alarmingly high proportion of animals.

The porn, drug and gambling marathon continues through the night while I read my embassy paperback, again. I finally manage fall to sleep around 3:00am only to wake at 5:00am to the early morning noise and the awful reality of where I am. This starts with a strange pumping sound, a kind of sucking, followed by a splash, it’s not the porn, I hear the same noise coming from other cells, through the plumbing.

I can now see in the early morning light, a young guy drawing brown water through a homemade hand pump for the toilet tank. There is not enough water for every cell, so this early morning milk race is essential to prevent the problem of unflushed toilets later in the day. I start my second day, tired and not only broke, but in debt.

Normally, prisoners are not permitted visitors during the first month, however, for a small $40 charge, it would be possible for my girlfriend to meet me briefly with food and much needed funds. We spend an hour together, before we are given the option to extend the visit for another small fee. I decline. My girlfriend will return later in the week with more supplies, but for now, she has to find a new home for herself.

I set off for my cell, only to discover yet another scam, between the visiting area and block A, there are six gates or doors. Each is staffed by guards wanting to check any supplies, which were already checked at the front gate. The choice is simple, pay 2,000 to every guard, or they take some of your food. Another $3, the scam reminds me of watching traffic police extorting truck drivers at every intersection – over time, it mounts up.

The prison provides two meals per day, these arrive in large aluminium buckets, one of nasty rice, often burned and another with nasty soup of the day. Normally nasty pork fat, otherwise nasty fish head – it all stinks. I learn the rice is deliberately over produced, more than half goes uneaten. This isn’t careless public sector waste, it is carefully planned public sector waste. Guards have prisoners dry the uneaten rice on mats in the sun, to be sold on to pig farmers as feed. All money going to prison officers, the benefit for prisoners? Flies. Millions of flies.

I later learn that there is also a similar pig and fish scam. The prison orders a certain amount of pork or fish every day, rather than steal the meat, there is an agreement with the supplier to short deliver. For example, 300kg of pork may be ordered and signed for, but only 200kg delivered. The missing 100kg is paid for by the department of prisons and the supplier and the prison guards can split the cash – around $400k per annum. Along with theft in the kitchen, finding a prime pork nugget in your bucket, is far less likely than finding prisoners taking their pick of three taxi girls waiting in the cell – but that is, a story for another time.

The sad result of malnutrition and days locked in overcrowded cells is a sickness which I am told is called beri-beri, or something. Affected prisoners cannot walk unaided, more able bodied detainees help the sick to walk in large circles in the grounds, literally lending a shoulder to lean on.

The first western prisoner I meet is Mark, he is a friendly, intelligent Australian (yes they found one and locked him up), he appears at the hatch in my cell door with a can of Fanta, demanding that I be allowed my exercise. In just 60 seconds, I learned more four letter words than I knew existed – but it got me out of my cell for some exercise.

Mark, was arrested two months before myself. He was charged with buying sex from his wife, who was currently missing, along with their baby and the baby sitter. All three were snatched by a well-known NGO with Hollywood connections and were now detained in a secret NGO detention center or shelter – depending on whether your perspective is as a donor or a hostage.

This NGO was subsequently exposed for lying to donors – several times. His Khmer mother in law was now frantically trying to trace the location of her daughter, however nobody, not even the police, knew where they were being held. It seems that the new anti-human trafficking law allows a certain latitude for kidnapping and illegal detention.

Eventually, much later, the girls were released from NGO captivity after months of imprisonment, having been subjected to a number of intrusive physical examinations, as well as being coerced by NGO staff. Years later, they are now all free and living, once again as a family.

I sit with Mark on a curb stone, which is in the shade of the building. He introduces me to a number of other foreign prisoners and I start to realise that my lawyer hasn’t been entirely honest with me, over time, I will get to hear each of their stories and how, guilty or innocent, the system has taken everything along with their freedom.

I learn also the purpose of block A, which is to apply maximum stress, in order to extort the most money, before the courts can. Cells are searched at least three times every week, personal belongings ransacked and thrown around the cell. Anything can be taken and sold back to you – even money is against the rules, Khmer prisoners often trusting foreigners with their cash or the guards will take it.

It has now been several weeks since I arrived at Prey Sar, I have not seen my absent minded and absent bodied lawyer – who not only failed to arrive on the first and all subsequent Mondays but neglected to inform me that pre-trial detention can last up to 18 months and that during this period, nothing will be investigated.

After hearing number of negative reviews of my current lawyer, mostly regarding high fees, theft and an absence of communication, I reluctantly decide to meet a second lawyer, who is recommended to me by a friendly Malaysian named Robert, who’s crime was running a business importing casino equipment but he had failed to pay the vip and was now in prison. The lawyer is a mature lady, who’s gold teeth seem to be causing some kind of speech impediment, she bubbles and fizzes (at the mouth) as she talks – I find this strangely disturbing. However, she seems friendly and keen to represent me.

The case file includes a number of photographs submitted by a fruity NGO from which the initial statements and conflicting stories were based. None of the photos are date or time stamped, inadmissible in the real world, however, one of the alleged victims stated that the time was 17:00 hours, just before the alleged crime. Or crimes. Or just before nothing happened (depending on which statement you read). I had previously hired a professional photographer to re-create the same scene, at 12:00 midday and again at 17:00hours. My instinct was right, shadows in the fruity NGO photos prove that the time was in fact between 12:00 and 13:00, not at 17:00 as stated.

At this time, I was self-employed, working UK time – 13:00 to 22:00 Cambodia time, computer records and documents, in the post from England, would prove this. My new lawyer helpfully informed me that this is an alibi.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 1

Introducing a serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

March 21st – Phnom Penh Following a brief overnight business trip to Sihanouk Ville, I am returning on my motorbike to my home in Phnom Penh. Its around midday, I am hot and dusty after the long ride. As I approach my street, I pass a number of police who appear to be waiting for something or someone; what I don’t realise is that someone is me.

I pull up outside my house, cut the engine and a large number of police rush out of my neighbours house, arrive in speeding 4×4’s, rappel from the roof and appear from under rocks. Many are brandishing the latest in video cameras, others have vintage automatic weapons, are they really heading for me? I am arrested in broken English, and I am shown what I assume must be an arrest warrant, in Khmer. The first officer grabs my motorbike, a black DRZ400, one of only two I know in Phnom Penh, did I jump that red light? Was the light even working?

My girlfriend opens the front door, in her night clothes. Its 12:30 dammit, did she just get up! Clearly she is as puzzled as I am, her younger sister arrives, yes, dressed not in her night clothes – but her sisters. Now things get scary, both girls are dragged from our home, in their night clothes and bundled into a waiting 4x4by a number of male officers, who I notice are wearing a uniform with a badge depicting an adult holding the hand of a child. All of this is captured in HD by the camera toting cops. I am pushed into a separate car and watch the first officer struggle to ride off on my motorbike, which is far too big for him.

MOI police station, Phnom Penh. I am taken to the central MOI police station, not far from the Intercon, though my suite is not quite up to the same standards. Its an empty 4m square cell, with filthy beige walls, a filthy checked tile floor, a filthy hole in the floor toilet with a filthy empty plastic water bucket. Oh, and hundreds of mosquitos, I make a mental note for trip-advisor. I am alone, but through the bars I can see several officers rifling through my overnight bag, which was strapped to my bike. This isn’t a forensic activity, more of a police free for all, I see my new Sony digital camera disappear into an officers pocket.

After an hour, I see my girlfriend and her sister emerge from an office on the far side of the police station courtyard. Still in their night clothes, they walk straight out of the station, alone and without money or even a phone – 5km from our home, which has been sealed by the police. Later that night, the two girls return with their aunt, the first issue is that they cannot get into our house and they have no money or clothes. My wallet was taken by the Chief of Police on arrival, but after a little negotiation, it is agreed that I can take $100 for my family, if I pay $20. I have no choice.

The big issue though, is that the police have been asking whether I have been sleeping with my girlfriends sister, she is around13 (and she is my girlfriends sister) – I am horrified. My girlfriend leaves to buy some clothes and to sort out a place to stay with her aunt. I am then ushered into an office, an anti human trafficking police officer is sitting at a computer, he is playing solitaire in a window that is small enough to reveal a desktop featuring a naked western girl – perhaps she has been trafficked. I am asked to sit at a dirty wooden table, joining two police officers, and a man in a white shirt, who, in broken English, introduces himself as a a local school teacher. He tells me that I have been arrested for purchasing prostitution from a minor, he says that he can help me, but I must pay him $100 to start.

I am in a state of total shock, perhaps panic but my normal instincts regarding good judgement, process and problem solving seem to have gone missing. I have no idea who this man is, he may be a motodop, a police officer or a NGO worker; but, at the time, none of this crosses my spinning mind, he is the first guy to speak to me in English – I pay $100 and I ask if I should call a lawyer. He informs me that I am not allowed to call a lawyer, at least not for the first day, but my newly appointed, school teacher and translator, just happens to know a lawyer who may be able to help.

March 22nd – house search My girlfriend arrives with breakfast, which not only did she have to buy, but she had to pay $5 to the police, to allow me to have. She tells me that she will come along with me when the police search our home.

After breakfast, we are bundled into a police truck and we head out as part of a convoy of around 20 officers, sirens wailing as if we are heading for some major international incident. Our noisy convoy attracts a large crowd to our small street, the Chief of Police is dressed in his best and pulls on a pair of surgical gloves as he unlocks our front door. Once again, the video cameras roll as some kind of misguided attempt to document something, but not police efficiency, or competency. The chief starts in the master bedroom, he heads straight for the bed, stripping the sheets wearing his latex gloves. Another officer is searching a chest of drawers and with a sense of victory, pulls out a condom. There is a gasp, cameras flash and 20 officers push forward to catch a glimpse of the offending rubberwear. Silence. “That’s ours”, my girlfriend informs him, “and it is still in the packet”, I add. Crestfallen, the officer returns the condom.

The crowd blunders down the hall into the second bedroom, where my girlfriends sister had stayed. The Chief repeats his strange bed stripping routine, but again, doesn’t seem find whatever he is looking for. Then trouble. We reach the living room, where the police are trying to figure out how a new flat screen TV can be taken into evidence. In the kitchen, officers help themselves to my cold Anchor as the Chief of Police discusses with my landlady how much money, she needs to pay, in order to avoid the house being sealed as a potential “crime scene”. After some negotiation, I watch my landlady hand over $400 in cash. The house search nets a significant haul, a laptop computer, an old playstation and a karaoke CD (there may actually be a positive here).  We return to the police station, where I am to be confronted with the allegations against me.

It is now24 hours since my arrest, however,  I am still not allowed to speak to a lawyer, but my school teacher translator, assures me that I will be released soon. I learn that two book girls from the riverside area, who are in the custody of an NGO , have made allegations against me. The first girl claimed that she met a man named John in 2005, he paid $50 to $100 for sex, she was alone and there were no witnesses. The second girl stated that she also met John, who, on the same day, paid her $50, before paying $100 to the first girl for sex. She added that a third girl was a witness. The third girl stated that nothing happened. These are very serious allegations, but clearly there has been some kind of mistake, my name isn’t John, I first came to Cambodia in 2006 and clearly, not only did I not commit these conflicting crimes; I couldn’t have.

After making a brief statement to this effect, I return to the holding cell, where my girlfriend is waiting with some lunch. We are joined by an Attorney at Law, he is slick and quickly informs me that he is an expert in this area. He adds that he knows these girls, they have done this before and if I hire him, it will all be resolved quickly. I agree to sign his power of attorney and he quickly moves on to the subject of his fee of $2,000. As he is leaving, my lawyer informs me that I will be going to court in the morning, but this is just a formality.

March 23rd- First Court, Phnom Penh It’s 8:00am, I am loaded onto the back of a police pickup truck, the type with a wooden bench on the back. There are four empty seats in the cab, but it seems the police want me to sit outside. I am cuffed to the metal roof bar and we drive off, sirens wailing, through the stationary early morning traffic. We arrive at the Municipal Court, for my first meeting, with the prosecutor. My lawyer is waiting, he is wearing a black robe, which makes him look like a crow, rather than a wizard. The court building is much the same as any public authority building in Phnom Penh, dirty, hot and disorganised – we wait.

After what seems like hours, I am lead into the prosecutor’s office. My lawyer informs me that he is due in a hearing, but he tell me that I can trust the prosecutor, who is now trying on my Omega watch, which somehow became “evidence”. With my lawyer absent and my teacher translator missing, we manage to cover the basics, being that I am not John and I was never in Cambodia in 2005. Next I have a meeting with the Investigating Judge, this takes place at a small school desk, in a busy corridor. The boy who takes my statement has barely left school himself, he has bad acne and rotten teeth; as a result, he hides his face behind a manila file and bounces his knee nervously as he asks questions. My lawyer is returns in body but he is on his phone, another guy joins us at the small desk, he is clearly very, very drunk. He struggles to read as the young investigating judge hides his face. After a few minutes, a police officer arrives, handcuffs the drunk man, and escorts him down the corridor.

After I answer the same questions several times, another man dressed in a black crows costume comes out of a nearby office and picks up the young investigators notes, my lawyer hangs up the phone. This is the Investigating Judge and I have just been interviewed by some kind of student intern. The Investigating Judge signs the boys work and without saying a word, leaves. My lawyer, informs me that I will be sent to Prey Sar prison, just a formality – no more than a few days.

I am returned to the MOI police station, this time, inside the cab of the pickup truck after my girlfriend paid the requested $20 to the police. The deputy chief speaks to me regarding my motorbike, which even though it was manufactured two years after the alleged crime, will be taken by the court as evidence …unless. If I were to pay the chief $200, he would allow me to sell the bike, else the bike might disappear at the court, or it might be stripped of parts. I am left with no choice, so reluctantly, I agree to the deputies plan, we complete the sale documents, which allows a local bike dealer to take the bike. I pay $200 to the deputy chief, who carefully changes the date of sale, to the day before my arrest – the perfect crime.

My girlfriend is upset, she has been to the house, but the landlady has changed the locks. My girlfriend and her younger sister, having been protected by the Anti Human Trafficking police -are now homeless. Tomorrow, I will be sent to Prey Sar.

To be continued.