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.