So Bengtharun started to work at IBJ”s office in Phnom Penh as the Deputy Country Director/Legal Advisor in January 2014. He supports the Country Director in supervising and coordinating all projects’ activities. He also supports the Country Director in building the legal capacities of IBJ lawyers and strengthens the organization’s internal capacities. He is responsible for supporting the project team in developing the strategy of the organization in Cambodia.
Moreover he works with provincial staff and the program management team to identify programming challenges and solutions. He endeavors to build and strengthen relationships with partners, donors, governmental institutions, courts and other stakeholders. From September 2009 to June 2013 he was working as a Provincial lawyer for IBJ in Prey Veng province, where he was the only permanent legal aid lawyer in the entire area. He was also providing legal services to the poor in the adjoining Province of Svay Rieng.
Bengtharun enjoys working with IBJ because he likes to help citizens who do not have the means to hire private lawyers. Furthermore, he is very active in promoting reform within the judicial system in Cambodia. Before starting his journey with IBJ, he worked as a lawyer’s assistant at Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW). He also served as a lawyer at Legal Aid of Cambodia, Cambodia Defender Project, and was a legal trainer at a University. Bengtharun graduated with a Master’s Degree of Law and Political Science from the Build Bright University. He holds a Bachelor of Law Degree from the University of Law and Economic Science, which he completed in 2002.
Today, Tharun still manages his functions as IBJ Deputy Country Director in Phnom Penh and continues to represent cases in DRC 3 in Prey Veng. In Prey Veng, he works with the assistance of Leang Sina, who has been a lawyer assistant for IBJ in that province for the past 6 years.
The lotus Lake dispute
Vuthy (changed name), age 37, farmer, married, 3 children, community team leader. Beung Khork, Tang Rorleang village, Kampong PorPel Commune, Pearang District, Prey Veng Province
Vuthy (changed name), a 37 years old farmer and father of three children was a community leader in his village in 2009. On 3 December 2009, Vuthy’s nephew went to the community lotus lake to harvest lotus. But a group of five men came and told him that he was not allowed to take the lotus. They stopped him and destroyed his lotus. The young boy didn’t understand, as the lotus lake was not the men’s property but the state property, and was scared. On his way back, he met Vuthy’s wife on her paddy field who asked him why he was crying. He explained her that a group of five armed men forbade him to collect lotus and threatened him with pikes and rakes. The five men approached her and she asked them why they used violence instead of talking to the young boy. She added that they were allowed to cultivate and harvest lotus there as it was a state land and as her husband was the community leader. The men answered that they had official legal documents proving that they owned the land. Vuthy’s wife asked to see these documents and one of the men violently hit her head with a rake. She felt down, unconscious for a while. When she woke up she scratched the man back on his face. Another man hit her with a sharp pike but fortunately Vuthy’s sister came and protected her with a metal basin from the attack. The man hit her twice and the basin still has the marks of the strikes.
Vuthy arrived and tried to stop them. He then brought his wife to the hospital and went to the district level police post to file a complaint. But it appeared that the police didn’t follow the procedure for this complaint. He then withdrew it and brought the complaint to the military police that also ignored it. So he went to the Court in Prey Veng but no one listened to him.
After the fight, the police arrived a made a report to the prosecutor, reporting the facts according to the plaintiff’s statement only. According to the plaintiff, Vuthy attacked him with a knife. The plaintiff explained that he run away and fell down and that Vuthy’s wife scratched his face.
The prosecutor sent the case to the investigating judge who issued a subpoena to Vuthy for interrogation. On 10 February 2010, Vuthy was interrogated and incarcerated, charged with intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances (Art 218 of the Criminal Code).
On 17 February 2010, IBJ lawyer, Mr. So Bengtharun (IBJ provincial lawyer) during one of his prison’s visits, met Vuthy who explained him that he didn’t understand why he was in prison as he was innocent. Furthermore, no one informed him about his right to have a lawyer.
Bengtharun informed him about his rights and about his role as a lawyer. He explained him that he could provide him free legal aid as he was working with IBJ. At this very moment, Vuthy suddenly had a ray of hope and asked IBJ to help him. He explained his version of the facts and denied all the accusations.
IBJ's lawyer successfully submitted a bail application to the Court and Vuthy was released on 24 February 2010. On 9 August 2010, the investigative judge transferred the case to the trial judge. The trial took place on 16 November 2011. During the trial, the lawyer requested an adjournment to the judge in order to summon witnesses and to present the medical letter from the hospital testifying about Vuthy’s wife’s state after the fight. The Court agreed to postpone the case.
On 23 July 2012, the trial took place. An eyewitness contradicted the plaintiff’s testimony and confirmed Vuthy’s testimony. The medical letter confirmed Vuthy’s version and several village officials testified about the honesty of Vuthy. Evidence such as the basin was also brought to the Court.
The judge decided to acquit Vuthy. The prosecutor asked the judge to refer him back to the case in order to charge the plaintiff back.
Without the help of IBJ's lawyer, Vuthy would probably have been sentenced to two to five years in prison as no further investigation would have been conducted. This story shows how essential it is to conduct a proper investigation with witnesses' testimony and cross-examination. Indeed, a trial cannot be fair without a fair and impartial investigation; something that IBJ is accustomed to conducting.
Thanks to IBJ's lawyer's hard work in visiting prisons and conducting deep investigation, an innocent has been saved from prison.
Before this, Vuthy and his family didn’t know about IBJ or about the role of a lawyer. Now he is very thankful to IBJ and he talks about it in his village and around. Since this event, his wife wants to know more about the law and she bought a criminal code to learn about it. They are both glad he has been freed and they realize that the justice system actually works in Cambodia.
“Appearances can be deceiving”: the lack of investigation before trial
In 2010, a thief came into Mr. P’s house to rob him of 6,500,000 riels (about 1,625 USD) and beat him. The victim immediately went to the police post to file a complaint, informing them that he suspected two persons: Veasna (name changed) and his son.
But Veasna, a 49 year-old farmer and father of seven children living in a deeply remote area, was in a pagoda at the time of the robbery. The police went to his house to investigate the robbery and found a gun. Veasna was absent at the time of the search and the police immediately concluded that he was guilty. They transferred the case to the Court where the prosecutor submitted it to the investigative judge. As the police could not find Veasna or his son in his house, the investigative judge issued an arrest warrant. The case had been tried in abstentia and the defendants were represented by a lawyer from Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF). The trial judge issued an arrest warrant for both Veasna and his son, charged them with robbery, and sentenced them to 6 years in prison.
On 15 August 2012, Veasna was arrested in his house and incarcerated. The police informed him neither of the warrant nor about his rights. Fortunately, the judge informed him about his sentence and explained that he had the right to file a complaint against the judgment as it was made in abstentia, which he did. As his ASF lawyer was not able to represent him, the judge assigned the case to Mr. So Bengtharun, the IBJ provincial lawyer in Prey Veng, on January 8, 2013, less than 20 days before the trial.
The trial took place on 23 January 2013 in the Svay Rieng Court. Veasna explained that the day before the robbery he was in a pagoda for a ceremony, and that he had stayed overnight. He heard that the police were conducting a search in his house. He was scared and decided to stay in the pagoda until the police left. He reported that he still does not know how the gun got in his house because he had never owned any firearms, but that he suspected his son, who never reappeared after the event.
IBJ lawyer asked to adjourn the trial for a recess in order to prepare and call witnesses from the pagoda ceremony as well as the police chief, and the judge agreed. The IBJ lawyer worked very hard on the case and finally found enough evidence to move forward.
On the final day of trial, February 5, 2013, all the defense witnesses confirmed that Veasna was in the pagoda during the robbery. The police chief testified that he had not received any arrest warrant for Veasna before the one issued by the trial judge.
The judge finally decided to acquit Veasna, who, was finally released on February 7, 2013.
Before this interaction with the criminal justice system, Veasna had never heard about IBJ. Now that he knows about it, he believes that it is a great organization which could effectively help many more poor people like him. He will spread this information in his village and beyond. After almost six months in prison, he feels very happy to be back home with his family, and is very grateful to IBJ.
Without the help of IBJ’s lawyer, Veasna’s judgment would probably have been confirmed as no further investigation would have ever been conducted. This shows how essential it is to conduct a proper investigation, including interviews of witnesses and cross-examination in court. Indeed, even though it is easier to believe something that is visible or tangible, appearances can often be deceiving.