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"The court is yours," Public Affairs head tells Cambodians

Luckily, it seems that our webmaster at the Post has been able to work out some of the kinks with the new format, and I am able to post entries again. I still need to correct formatting issues with old entries, but this will be done in the near future.

Since I last wrote, the court has continued interviewing former S-21 staffers. Recaps of these testimonies are available in the Post's recent archives and also at the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor (the latter source is a bit more extensive).

As a backdrop to all this, the atmosphere at the court itself has changed considerably in recent months. I've mentioned this before, but because the difference is so striking, I recently interviewed newly appointed Public Affairs head Reach Sambath about his office's outreach efforts. Since he took over his new role in June, hearings have gone from generally sparsely attended events (often with only a couple dozen people staying for afternoon sessions), to overflow audiences.

Sambath attributes some of his recent success to good timing. His appointment to head of Public Affairs happened to coincide with the start of particularly engaging witness testimony at the court. In contrast to technical legal issues, the stories of actual witnesses are more interesting for laypeople to follow, he explained. Plus, it can't hurt that the majority of witnesses who have testified so far are native Khmer speakers.

"They know the language of the witnesses, of ordinary people," Sambath said.

Shortly after Sambath took over, the office made several announcements advertising the court on local radio stations. Unaware that they would meet with such enthusiastic response, press officers even publicly listed their personal cell numbers as contact information. Their phones have been ringing round-the-clock ever since. In fact, the court is fully booked until Aug. 26.

"These days, villagers have mobile phones," he explained. "News travels quickly."

Busloads of villagers have come from Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Takeo and Siem Reap provinces, among others.

The court provides transportation, but villagers must generally wake up in the early hours of the morning to prepare lunch for the daytrip. Some simply can't sleep.

"Sometimes the old people can't sleep the whole night because they're so excited," Sambath said.

Whole families pile into the buses, even children. Although they are not allowed in the courtroom itself, they can watch a simulcast of hearings outside and can often be found playing in the recently-expanded canteen area.

Along with the hearings themselves, the court has other attractions, Sambath said: An air conditioned courtroom, hot and cold water, and modern bathroom facilities. The western-style toilets have caused a good deal of confusion, and Sambath now makes a point of giving instructions for their use as soon as the crowds arrive.

Despite the long trip and sleep deprivation, audiences seem genuinely engaged in the proceedings.

"We are implanting the legal system in their brains," Sambath said. Numerous villagers have called to tell him that, after seeing the court, they have been following proceedings closely on TV and radio. Some even ask to come back. One village has visited three times so far, Sambath said, laughing.

Now his staff just has to figure out how to accommodate everyone.

"People feel proud when they see the court," Sambath said. "We tell them, 'the court is yours.'"

 


 

 

* Pictured: Villagers during a recent break at the ECCC (above); a packed lunch hour in the canteen, which has recently been expanded to seat 600 peoople (at right).

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