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.


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.


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.