Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Diary Entry 4

Inside the court room


The Judge

"Good talker. Bad judge." That's how one legal expert described Nil Nonn, the chief judge of Battambang court. When we met Judge Nil, I was surprised to find a man clad in a fashionably mod, black, button-down outfit, with the confident toothy smile and sardonic wink of a movie star. And if it wasn't his cell phone interrupting our interview, it was his assistant, checking to make sure the light was flattering.

The sorry state of the Cambodian justice system is one of the reasons cited by the United Nations for its dropping out of negotiations for a genocide trial. Part of the problem dates back to the Khmer Rouge -- they so completely decimated the educated population that few lawyers were left alive with the credentials to prosecute them. Only six law school graduates are known to have survived the regime.

Today, less than half of the country's judges have graduated from high school, let alone law school. Of the 171 judges and prosecutors working in Cambodia in 2000, only 33 percent have received any formal legal training.

In addition, Cambodia's courts are thought to be extensively controlled by the government. The judiciary and the central government were only officially separated into distinct departments in 1993. Corruption is rampant: According to a recent World Bank study, when private citizens have contact with the courts, there is a 68 percent chance that they will have to pay a bribe. Established middlemen run entire businesses helping justice-seekers in some Cambodian courts get more bang for their bribe.

We learn that a few days before our arrival, a couple of murder suspects were being taken in custody to Judge Nil's court to be arraigned. They only made it a few blocks before an angry mob set upon them and, in full view of police, beat them to death in the street.

Such lynchings have become increasingly common in Cambodia as people have lost any faith in the justice system. Mob killings are averaging two a month now, according to a recent U.N. report. Graphic pictures of the mangled victims are a common fixture on the front pages of the local papers. The police often stand by and watch -- they, too, are frustrated with the courts for continuing to let criminals go.

Accused robber sits on trial
Sitting in Judge Nil's courtroom feels a little surreal. It's strange to watch men on trial for petty crimes while the architects of the genocide are still free. The two defendants sit in the dock together though they're being tried for different cases -- one for minor assault, the other for robbery. They look scared to death. Both men sit dejectedly, their heads down, looking as if they're trying to disappear through the floor. They only look up at the judge and lawyers on the dais when they are directed to answer a question.

The courtroom is mostly open to the outside and the sounds of street bustle drift inside. In the courtyard, a group of men are burning trash. Judge Nil, in black robes, sits up on the dais and is flanked by the lawyers for either side. Above the judge on the wall is a large seal of the scales of justice.

No evidence is presented. Few witnesses come forward, though the wife of the accused robber shuffles into court with a baby on her hip to testify that her husband was out foraging for food when the crime occurred. Otherwise, the prosecutor mostly reads prepared statements of those involved. In fact, it's a miracle there's anyone in the dock at all. We had tried to film in Judge Nil's courtroom the week before, but all the cases for that day had been cancelled -- no one had bothered to answer any summons. Cambodian courts don't have many resources to track down defendants and force them to appear.

The two men on trial today had to show up -- they've been in custody since their arrests. Both say that police tortured them into confessing. In their frayed despair, today's defendants don't look as if they have much to offer in the way of bribes -- but neither, it seems, do their accusers. In the end, the judge acquits both men for lack of evidence.

We talk with Judge Nil, who says that he's upset by people's lack of faith in the justice system. He laments that he often has to defend his profession to friends. He admits that, yes, he does take bribes -- of course -- but only after a case is over. After all, he earns only $30 a month, not nearly enough to provide for his family. What else, he asks with that toothy grin, is he supposed to do?

NEXT: ANLONG VENG: Jungle Headquarters

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