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.
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?
ANLONG VENG: Jungle Headquarters
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