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.