Court comes down hard on two deported Americans. Resettlement NGO
pushed beyond limits.
Yuthea 'Chu' Chhoeuth laughs at the ironic prospect
of sharing a prison cell with Khmer Rouge commander Nuon Paet, a man who
supported the murderous regime that killed many members of Chu's family and sent
him on his wayward trajectory.
But if it means moving from an
overcrowded, three-to-a-sleeping-mat cell and into a room with only two other
cell mates, Chu is all for it.
"Oh man, I dream of cool air,
ventilation," he says, sitting in the shade of a tree behind the packed visiting
room at Correctional Center 1 (CC1), outside of Phnom Penh.
"He's got a
fan in there and there's just one other guy... I'm going to teach him [Nuon
Paet] English and learn Khmer."
It's typical that the handsome
32-year-old, described as "thoughtful" and "intellectual" by those close to him,
has charmed his way into the good graces of "the big guy" of CC1 within two
Chu is one of 129 Cambodian refugees deported from the United
States after committing a felony while not formally citizens. Since returning at
the start of 2003, he has struggled to fit into a place where he is not accepted
as truly Cambodian or American. And despite efforts to quit, he has found
himself again using drugs and getting into trouble.
learned a lesson in the sometimes-fickle rules of his new homeland. On April 1,
he was sentenced to five years in prison for robbery, when everyone - including
the owner of the "borrowed" motorbike he was alleged to have stolen - said he'd
"In the States, for joyriding, we'd be out that same day," Chu
says, shaking his head. "I got the feeling that the guy [prosecutor] had some
real anguish towards Americans. They see us like we had our big chance to go to
America and we fucked it up. We got in trouble and got sent back, so now they
see us as garbage."
A lark gone wrong
trouble started on the evening of November 15, shortly after Chu had injected
heroin and gone to KIDS guesthouse and Internet café, a drop-in center for
He was admiring a 250cc dirt bike parked at the entrance when
- according to Chu's version of events - someone said that if he could start it
up, he could take it for a ride.
When the bike didn't kick start, Chu
wheeled it out to the street and called to an acquaintance, Phok Chhoeuth (no
relation) to help him push start it. The engine fired and Chu rode off with
Chhoeuth on the back.
After dropping the passenger off at his house, Chu
set off on a three-hour cruise around the streets of Phnom Penh.
KIDS, the bike's owner noticed it missing and a search got under way, headed by
Bill Herod, coordinator of the Returnee Assistance Project (RAP), an
organization that helps deportees make the often-difficult transition back to
life in Cambodia.
Chhoeuth was called and asked to come to the
guesthouse, but when he arrived he denied all knowledge of the missing bike.
Eventually, Chu was found at Herod's house, where he had been staying
temporarily, carefully polishing the bike with a krama. It was short a few
liters of petrol, but otherwise undamaged.
"I asked him where he got the
bike from, and he told me the 'time police' had given it to him," says Herod,
who then asked Chu to go with him in a van. "We took them both to the police and
handed them over."
Chu insists he had no intention of stealing the bike,
saying if that was his plan he would have either ridden far away or sold it and
skipped town. He calls it a misunderstanding. Chhoeuth says he was just helping
to start a bike and didn't know it belonged to someone else.
agrees that it was probably just "a lark", a joyride that seemed like a good
idea at the time in Chu's drug-addled state of mind, but said he was also tired
of bailing these two guys out of trouble.
"We'd been working with both of
them for a long time to get them clean and nothing was working," Herod says. "I
hoped a few months in Prey Sar [CC1 prison] would be helpful, but five years is
The 'iron fist' factor
things happened once the court investigation got under way that would change the
dynamic of Herod's 'detox by detention' approach.
First, the initial
charge of theft was changed by the prosecutor to robbery because two people were
involved, and then a month before their hearing, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to
use an "iron fist" against court officials who illegally released robbers.
As a result, the minimum sentence had jumped from six months to three
years, and every judge and prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was
scrambling to be seen as coming down hard on robbers.
pressure from the top, Chu's lawyer, Soeung Ratha, who met his clients at the
courtroom on the day of the hearing, was confident they would be released.
A letter was submitted from the bike's owner asking that the complaint
be dropped and that time spent in pre-trial custody be considered sufficient
punishment. But under the French-based legal system used in Cambodia, the
prosecutor brings charges against the accused, and the bike owner's request was
Statements from the Transcultural Psycho-social Organization
(TPO) testified to the men's fragile mental states at the time - especially
Chhoeuth, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has a row of pale scars slashed
across the inside of one arm.
The evidence against Chu and Chhoeuth
amounted to a police report that had the men's names wrong and was based on just
one witness who saw the bike being push-started but not being taken from the
According to the lawyer, no further investigation was done by
the prosecutor, Ngeth Sarath, or investigating judge Thong Ol.
didn't have any proof, he just took the police report ... and took it to the
[presiding] judge to make the decision," Ratha says. "I think the judge and
prosecutor [were] afraid that if they released Yuthea Chhoeuth and Phok
Chhoeuth, maybe they would have a problem."
While Ratha says both his
clients understood Khmer well, Chu says he struggled to follow the case against
"I don't speak so much Khmer. So when I got up in court, they made
me look stupid, using big words and that. I was dumbfounded."
feeling grew when presiding judge Tan Senarong found both of them guilty and
handed down five-year jail terms.
"We aren't perfect people, but to get
five years for something outlandish, it's just crazy," Chu says. "Even the
guards here [in CC1] can't believe it. They say you guys should be goin' home.
You really got the stiff one."
While an appeal has been filed and Herod has been assured a
hearing will take place within three months, the two returnees are getting used
to life inside a Cambodian lockup.
"It's a real third world prison,"
observes Chu, who says most of the guards are "real nice" even though he has
witnessed beatings and been amazed at the corruption within the
"They got a funny way to do business, real primitive," he says
during an interview that took place after an intermediary gave a total of 34,000
riel to three different prison guards.
Chu's friends say the grim
prospect of another long stretch in prison has forced a breakthrough in the drug
addiction he has battled for years.
But things have been harder for
Chhoeuth, who was not receiving the lithium being sent by Herod through prison
guards to treat his manic depression.
Ten days after the trial he
slashed his left wrist.
Lacking money to bribe the prison's medical
workers, Choeuth was sent back to his cell after a few hours, without stitches,
painkillers, or even a Band-Aid.
During the interview, he keeps the deep
gash turned face down and out of sight, mostly nodding in agreement with Chu.
"I'm worried about him," Chu says. "He needs his meds and a psych. I
mean, I did some psych courses and philosophy courses in college, so I can try
to get through a little bit, but he needs some help."
Now, medication is
arriving and Chu has made himself responsible for doling it out, guarding
against Chhoeuth's temptation to swallow all the pills at once.
cell has no running water, and they can't bring themselves to touch prison food.
RAP pays $40 a month to ensure a basic meal arrives twice a day, with drinking
water, while generous friends send extra food, cigarettes and money to pay for
goods and privileges, like leaving their cell.
Chhoeuth has started doing
sketches of fellow prisoners or copying tiny photographs of their loved ones in
exchange for cigarettes. With luck, this might keep his mind occupied when Chu
moves cells, and he's left fending for himself in the crowded cell.
An impossible situation
Chu's story of
drug addiction and lousy luck is part of a wider problem, one that spans back to
the streams of refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s and
And it's a problem set to intensify.
It is estimated that
more than a thousand Cambodians are awaiting deportation from the US under an
agreement signed by the two governments in March 2002. They will multiply the
burdens of a support system that already shows signs of failing them.
Returnees range in age from 21 to 83 years, but most are around 30.
Their crimes are varied - from serious violence to urinating in public - but all
made the same simple mistake; they never bothered applying for citizenship.
Years later, anyone who served time and was without the right papers was
released into the hands of immigration with a one-way ticket back to a country
many hardly remembered.
"Everyone looks at me and thinks I'm Khmer, but
I'm not. I'm American," says Chu, who left when he was three years old.
It was a parole violation years after an unarmed bank robbery that sent
Chu back, although mitigating circumstances at the time of the original offense
saw him get off with the softest sentence possible: three years in jail.
The way he tells it, he was 18 and angry; his father had recently been
murdered in a home invasion, and Chu says he robbed the bank "to get revenge".
Knowing the insurance policy of the bank was to hand over money after any kind
of threat, he simply walked in and demanded the teller give him cash.
"She looked at me and said, 'But you're just a kid', and I thought, 'Oh
boy'," remembers Chu with an embarrassed grin.
Since deportations began
in June 2002, 127 other men and one woman have been forced to return, although
one man has died from diabetes complications and another was hit by a car.
Herod and his few staff try to provide resettlement services such as
orientation, housing, employment placements and counseling to returnees, but he
says his organization is stretched well- beyond capacity.
"Right now, we
are basically dealing with cases that are in trouble," Herod says.
own reckoning, that's enough to keep him busy.
"About a third are doing
well, a third are in trouble and another third are in very serious
Currently, the scheduled deportations have stalled, but Herod
expects that soon groups of ten to 15 returnees will start arriving each
In October 2004, RAP received $300,000 in funding from the US
Agency for International Development to cover two years of the project.
Additional funding comes from other NGOs and private donors. RAP has two
residential facilities and a harm reduction outreach center, part of a new
project being run by specialist Holly Bradford.
Case management for the
40 to 50 returnees who require regular contact is shared between Herod, Bradford
and the Transcultural Psycho-social Organization. But the RAP coordinator says
he faces an "impossible situation" in trying to help returnees deal with the
forced separation from friends, family and the only life many have known.
There are some success stories - like the 83-year-old who happily
reunited with his family - but all too few. Aside from Chu and Chhoeuth, one
other returnee is currently in CC1, although at least six others have served
time for various offenses over the past three years.
If Chu's case is
anything to go by, there will need to be a significant increase in case
management and drug counseling to keep these future returnees out of trouble and
assist them fitting back into Cambodian society.
Herod admits that at
the moment, he's just keeping his head above water.
"In the first year,
I used to say that my job was to keep people alive and out of jail," he says.
"By the second year, I just kept them alive."