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.


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.