I think that being a lawyer is like being a doctor – you have to work for the patient when they need assistance
As a lawyer who specialises in paedophile cases, Dun Vibol defends some of the most controversial criminals in Cambodia.
From his modest office at an independent law firm next to Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the 33-year-old has acted for more than 35 foreigners in sex and drug crime cases since 2005. Of those, two saw charges dropped and another three recieved suspended sentences.
This year, he has defended James Allan Morrow, a 46-year-old American charged in March with purchasing child prostitution and producing a pornographic video involving an 11-year-old girl, and 35-year-old French designer and photographer Mathias Cassar, charged in March with producing and distributing child pornography.
“I think that everyone deserves justice and I think that they deserve to have a good lawyer to represent their case because of the weak institution of the judiciary system here,” says Dun Vibol, who previously worked as a legal assistant at the NGO Legal Aid of Cambodia.
“Sometimes when I represent them I don’t have a good feeling, but I have no choice. I think being a lawyer is like being a doctor – you have to work for the patient when they need assistance.”
The young, personable lawyer admits that defending foreigners can be lucrative, but he also struggles with the disturbing nature of his cases and uses his own moral barometer to justify his work.
“It is better to work with foreigners, because it pays better than working with Cambodian nationals,” he says, adding “sometimes I don’t hope that I can win the case, but just go through the system”.
“I get a lot of stress. Sometimes I have to be alone in a quiet place to concentrate,” he says, adding that defending sex offenders can take a toll on him emotionally and causes him emotional stress.
Dun Vibol himself has also faced his share of criticism, particularly over his opinions on the non-governmental organisations that work to protect children from sex offenders.
Last year, he found himself in a dispute with NGO Action Pour Les Enfants, which has been investigating child sex offenders and conspirators since 2003 and has assisted in the arrests of 169 suspects as of March this year. APLE country director Samleang Seila filed a defamation complaint against Dun Vibol on May 12 last year, after Vibol was quoted in The Post as saying that APLE engaged in entrapment “in most child sex cases related to foreigners”.
The complaint was dismissed by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court but an appeal was lodged by APLE with the prosecutor general two months ago.
Despite the pending appeal, Dun Vibol still feels that the legal process regarding child sex crimes is largely biased against suspects, and that NGOs and police frequently “take sides with the victims”.
“If we look at the activities of the NGOs here, they can do whatever they want. It’s not like other countries like America or in Europe. They can investigate and follow someone without any permission from the police, so that’s why I can say that they use entrapment,” he says. “They push the police to investigate and the police must listen to them.”
Accusations of entrapment by NGOs have also been made in court. Vibol defended outspoken convicted rapist Graham Cleghorn from New Zealand, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in 2004.
He represented Cleghorn in the Supreme Court in November of last year over disinformation charges, after Cleghorn claimed that the five victims in his case, who all worked for him, were paid up to $10,000 each by the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre to testify against him.
APLE strongly denies the entrapment accusations. Project assistant Joerg Langekotz describes the claims as “a load of rubbish” saying: “APLE has our own code of ethics which specifically states, ‘no entrapment and no setting anybody up’. If it did take place, I would stop working here immediately.”
Samleang Seila adds that the judiciary would never willingly accept evidence gathered under false pretences and that “it is unthinkable to use children to entrap offenders, and we will always condemn that”.
Bith Kimhong, director of the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department at the Ministry of Interior, agrees. “We cooperate with NGOs to observe the activities of foreigners walking with girls....
but entrapment is never used. [NGOs] have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Interior so they always cooperate with authorities,” he said.
APLE also denies any suggestion that it is biased against foreigners. So far it has assisted in the arrest of 44 Cambodians, the highest demographic in their eight-year history.
Beyond the issue of entrapment, Dun Vibol claims that NGOs such as APLE can take a lead role in investigating suspects sometimes without notifying the police.
However, APLE says it only aids investigations with police approval and Bith Kimhong also emphasises this point: “If NGOs suspect anyone they first report them to our authorities then we will work on the issue together, they cannot do the investigation alone because the law does not allow them to do so.”
Yet APLE admits it carries out some independent enquiries. Langekotz says: “We do investigate beforehand.... if we see [an adult] under suspicious circumstances, of course we do a background check.... all of these findings we accumulate, and if the child confirms it, we talk to police who help us to find out the suspect’s identity.”
Some experts have questioned the value of Cambodian NGOs in aiding in criminal cases.
Steve Morrish, executive director of anti-human trafficking and exploitation organisation SISHA and a former police detective in Australia, says that “too many NGOs are trying to do police-type work and investigations and they are not qualified to do so, and that is where problems occur”.
“There is a lot of criticism that says the Cambodian court system and the police must be corrupt because they’ve released an offender ... but the majority of the time it happens it’s because the courts in Cambodia have rules for evidence and nine times out of 10 NGOs haven’t provided quality, credible evidence and this is why these people are released.”
Dun Vibol himself has faced criticism of his professional practices. The complaint APLE filed against him also accuses him of submitting false documents and paying bribes while defending clients.
“Sometimes NGOs have said that I try to bribe the police to get this evidence, but in fact this how the Cambodian administration works – we have to pay the officials who work with us for their help in investigations,” Dun Vibol says, adding that sometimes low-level commune officials have to be paid for access to certain documents such as birth certificates. He maintains these are not bribes.
“It is the way of working in the Cambodian style, if we want to get something done we have to pay.... when my client is in police custody I have to give money to police to see my client and bring food for my client,” he says.
Morrish says that there are some small administrative fees required to pay certain ministries for access to documents, but access to birth certificates and specific documents are usually under the jurisdiction of the court prosecutor or police.
APLE disputes that paying for access to information is necessary. Langekotz says that Dun Vibol “should go to the anticorruption unit and complain about it to the police”.
“If he said that, as a lawyer, he should give back his licence to practice law. I don’t think the Bar Association would approve of this statement,” he said.
Yet Dun Vibol maintains that he is merely paying “investigation fees” out of his own pocket in order to do his job, one that he has no plans of giving up anytime soon.
“I don’t have any plans to change, overall I like the work and I respect the job – even though it makes me very stressed, because I can help the clients to get lesser sentences,” he says.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA