Pheak joined IBJ in February 2010. Currently working as a lawyer for IBJ’s Phnom Penh office, Ms. Pheak is responsible for court advocacy for the effective enforcement of Cambodian Criminal Penal and Procedures Codes. Pheak also provides legal aid representation during the investigative and trial phases across Cambodia. Pheak has focused her career on access to justice promotion in Cambodia. She has extensive experience as a legal aid lawyer, focusing on representing indigent clients who otherwise have limited or no access to legal representation on domestic violence. Pheak also provides advice on divorce, assault, sexual and narcotic offences. Prior to joining IBJ, Pheak worked as a lawyer for three years at Legal Aid Cambodia. There she gained experience defending clients in criminal matters before the Provincial Courts, Appellate Court and the Supreme Court. Pheak holds both her Master of Law and Bachelor of Law from the Royal University of Law of Economics, Phnom Penh. Through her work at IBJ, Pheak holds the Police, Investigative Judge and Trial Judge accountable in upholding the Cambodian Criminal Penal and Procedures codes.
The story of a woman who found herself in what seemed to be a hopeless situation is saved by her family, her co-workers, and IBJ
Ms. Thyda (name changed) is 24 years old woman who works very hard to support her family in Phnom Penh. She lives with them in a small house on the side of an abandoned railway. Her house is part of a community of pieced-together houses, colloquially referred to as a slum, and it is in this very same community where the incident leading to her detention and upcoming trial occurred. Her possible charge is intentional violence with aggression.
It all started when her monthly 64-dollar paycheck was missing from her locker although she suspects it was stolen. In order to pay her bills, she was forced to ask a man from her community for a loan. Unfortunately, Ms Thyda caught him at the wrong time because he was on his porch visibly intoxicated. He started calling her names, belligerently insulting her and her family. He then proceeded to throw food and metal objects at her. Eventually the situation escalated into a more physical fight. At this point an unknown group of men show up and proceed to beat the man up. Ms. Thyda left quickly, severely beaten.
She was aware of the fact that this man was a government informant who lives in the slums in order to provide information to the government about the goings on in the community. This frightened her because these connections could mean extreme prejudice and injustice against her. These connections make him a dangerous man to upset. He was so upset that he called his friends at the police station and blamed the entire incident on this poor young woman that came to him for help.
The police asked Ms. Thyda to come give her statement at the station. Since she felt she did nothing wrong, she went to the station right away. However, instead of taking her statement they decided to keep her in custody until the investigation started. She was not informed of any time limit on her custody and felt like she could be kept in there for however as long as they pleased. And without representation it’s hard to say how long that might have bee. There is no time limit; there is no oversight; she could be kept in there for however much time they see fit. There were no charges; she was not read any rights, and the investigation hadn’t even started. She was thrown into a damp10x10 foot cell with no light other than a 4x6 inch window. The conditions were deplorable. There was no bed, sheets, or ventilation at all. Prisons conditions in Cambodia are not great, but custody conditions are much less monitored due to the fact that they are meant to be short term holding facilities. They vary from lush cells usually reserved for the wealthy to what Ms. Thyda unfortunately experienced. She was in custody for five days during which time she was provided absolutely no food or water. Luckily her family was able to bring her what little sustenance they could afford to keep her going. Looking back at those five long days in the custody, Ms. Thyda said, “I felt absolutely hopeless. I was hungry, tired, scared and I knew that nobody was coming to help me. I felt depressed because at this point, my life seemed to be over (translated).”
IBJ is known by many other organizations in Cambodia as one of the only directions to turn in a situation like this. There are groups that try to look after service workers in Phnom Penh. Luckily, the restaurant Ms. Thyda works is a member of one such group which specifically looks after women who work night jobs. After hearing the situation, her organization contacted IBJ for help. An IBJ attorney was able to meet with the client the very next day, listen to her story, and get her released from custody that same day. Because there were no charges, there was no bail and there was no hearing. It’s not that it is extremely difficult for a lawyer to work within the system, it’s that if someone has no lawyer, nobody is looking out for them. Ms. Thyda could have easily been in custody for months before any investigation even started. She has not been charged with anything yet, but if she is, IBJ will be by her side defending her rights every step of the way.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent – How Quickly This Presumption Can Change Someone’s Life.
Vibol (name changed) is a thirty four year old man who used to work as a construction worker in a village outside of Phnom Penh. One night, his whole life changed when he had a lapse of judgment that ended up landing him into a world of trouble that without IBJ’s help he would surely be still in the midst of today. Every day he would come back from his work, eat dinner with his family, and then went go to sleep at a church nearby where he parked his and his friend’s bikes so he could watch them. His neighbor’s sister in law went over the church and asked if she could stay there too, referencing family trouble as the reason why she needed to sleep somewhere else. After initially rejecting this idea, he eventually wilted and allowed her to sleep in the bed with him. One thing let to another and eventually they ended up having consensual sex several times.
The next morning Vibol woke up at 4:30 a.m. as he always does, and went to go make breakfast for his family. The aforementioned neighbor came over soon after, and made him go to the village center to see the police, as the girl had told her that he had raped her. She also came to the center and said she would say the sex was consensual if he paid her two thousand dollars, he did not have this money and could not do so. He was then arrested for raping her, the police took him to court, and he was sent to jail where he remained for the next eight months.
The dominant presumption in Cambodia, when it comes to the accused, is that they are guilty until proven innocent. Vibol’s job as a construction worker had not allowed him to save enough money to afford a lawyer, so without IBJ he would not have any representation in court. With no lawyer, and this presumption against him, Vibol’s chances of having a fair, impartial trial were virtually non-existent. His rights to justice and a fair trial are entirely bypassed without a lawyer and as such he would have been in jail for ten to fifteen years on the strength of the accusation that occurred that morning.
Fortunately for him, his forgiving wife got in contact with Licadho, a national human rights organization, who directed her to IBJ. IBJ lawyer, Chan Reaseypheak was able to take the case and began investigating, something that no one had previously done for either side in this case. She began interviewing relatives and witnesses to see if there was any proof of his guilt, but was unable to find anything one way or the other. Eventually, the case went to trial and Chan received a stroke of good fortune when the victim decided to come to court which gave her an opportunity to be questioned by the judge. The judge, in questioning, found numerous important inconsistencies between her previous statement and answers in court on that day which weighed really heavily in finding Vibol innocent and getting his freedom back.
These days, Vibol is an outcast in his city, he no longer has a job and fishes for his livelihood. When he walks down the street, people driving or walking often cross to the other side of the street so as to avoid crossing his path. He is, however, immensely grateful for how IBJ has changed his life, without IBJ he would almost definitely be presumed guilty and in jail until his sentence was completed. He did not really understand why his neighbors accused him, but hypothesized that maybe because he helped them with little things around their house and neighborhood, they had decided he was a malleable person who they could take advantage of for money, or he thought that maybe the neighbor did not want anyone to know that her family was associate with him and was embarrassed. All the same, were it not for IBJ’s presence and availability to Vibol, any reason his neighbor could have come up with to make such an accusation would have led to him being in jail for ten to fifteen years.