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Comment: Justice a stranger at Kompong Cham courthouse

Jennifer Smith and Tali Levy recently visited Kompong Cham province.

They recount below their observations of a criminal trial held on June 27, 1996.

THE defendant stood nervously at the witness stand as the clerk returned from the

adjoining room carrying the "poison" mixed in a glass of water. We shifted

curiously in our seats, unsure of what might be happening.

As American law students, we were present at the trial because we wished to witness

the legal procedures of a provincial court. Our expectations were realistically tempered,

but we could never have imagined the extraordinary scenario which unfolded.

The defendant, accused of poisoning her victim to steal his moto, had spent two months

in prison awaiting trial. During the course of the trial, the judge barely allowed

her to speak, berating and intimidating her with each question. With virulence and

a wicked, glinting smile, he interrogated her. Her inaudible responses to each booming

question were met with loud provocations to speak up, followed by an onslaught of

further queries. She had no opportunity to voice any defense.

But this harassment paled in comparison to the judge's outrageous demand - issued

twice during the course of the trial - that she drink a glass of the "poison"

she had allegedly used to commit her crime.

With the logic of Solomon's judgment, the judge seemed to believe the best way to

arrive at the "truth" of her intent would be to force her to consume the

drug. If she drank it without hesitation, she could theoretically be found not guilty.

Yet if she refused to drink it, or even flinched, it would prove her guilt and her

intent to poison the victim.

The judge stepped down from his stand and approached the defendant with the glass.

He towered over her, and in a threatening voice, demanded that she drink its contents.

She stared at him blankly for a couple of minutes, unsure of what to do. Looking

helplessly at her defender, and then back at the judge, she finally relented to his

demand. She drank the substance and the judge laughed, breaking an awkward silence

that had filled the courtroom.

After tiring of the delightful amusement, he granted the defense and prosecution

a few minutes each for closing arguments before excusing the defendant from the courtroom.

During the time allotted for deliberation, the judge paced the room, joking with

the prosecutor and clerk about his clever antics. "How much do you think she

should get?" he asked several onlookers.

He reasoned out loud that as a Vietnamese woman, the defendant probably intended

to sleep with her victim before stealing his moto. Everyone shifted uncomfortably

in their seats, nervously laughing along with him to keep from alienating this powerful

man. There is no doubt who rules this court.

Wise deliberations aside, he reconvened the trial, and called the witness back in

for the judgment. Once again, the judge sent the clerk out for a glass of water and

the poison.

This time, the judge asked her to unwrap the paper packet handed to her by ther clerk,

and inquired whether the white powdery substance was the poison she had used on her

vicitm. Before she could utter a response, he demanded to know whether she believed

the poison would cause convulsions or death. She replied that she did not know. He

then insisted that the powder was indeed the same drug she had used, and he instructed

her to mix the poison into the water to demonstrate how she had concoted the potion

to posion her victims.

Again, the judge ordered her to gulp down the entire glass. When she appeared unaffected,

he explained that the poison's potency is lesser on women than it is on men, commenting

that within three hours she would surely suffer from convulsions.

"Do you feel dizzy" he toyed, before sarcastically offering to allow her

to sit down.

Like a disproportionately powerful cat pawing at a defenseless mouse, the judge ultimately

tired of the game.

He read the sentence, which appeared to have been prepared prior to the trial and

certainly before the deliberation period.

The defendant's shoulders shook, and her hands reached up to dry her tears. We'll

never know which had been more upsettting: the ordeal of the trial or the six-month

sentence it had produced.

She turned away from the stand, looking confused and upset as she left the judicial

chamber. The judge, meanwhile, remained on the raised platform, joking and laughing

with the clerk and prosecutor, winding down from the day's entertainment.

Ultimately, it turned out that the glass contained only water and an innocuous powder.

But the defendant did not know that. Besides being a complete travesty of justice

and procedure, this action verged on psychological torture.

What provoked this abuse of power? Certainly, because the defendant was ethnically

Vietnamese, the judge viewed her as an easy and unsympathetic target.

Apparently, the poison she was alleged to have used is a notorious Vietnamese concoction.

Nevertheless, ethnic discrimination seemed a minor factor in the trial and judgment.

More importantly, the entire event was like a show, with the judge asserting his

power and demonstrating just how far he could go in his courtroom. Justice, fairness,

and the rule of law are being held hostage in Kompong Cham - by a maniacal judge

with a vicious sense of humor.

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