When Chu Trie returned to Cambodia in 1994 after 18 years in France the last
thing he expected was to land in jail accused of being an enemy of the state.
The fact that his near 12-month prison stretch was the result of being in the
wrong place at the wrong time made it all the more galling.
Chu Trie Puth Siem
Cambodia very much. That was why I returned to work," said the former president
of a Siem Reap streetkids NGO.
Trie's life changed November 17 last year,
the day he paid a visit to Yon Soksan. He had gone to Soksan's house to ask his
son for help to repair his mobile phone, and found himself in a seemingly
It was a week before the Cambodian Freedom
Fighter's botched coup attempt, when the CFF was little more than a rumor.
Military police surrounded Soksan's house with a warrant for his arrest; Trie
and Soksan's relative, 48-year-old Puth Siem, were taken in for good measure.
While Soksan was convicted of CFF involvement in the June trial, the
other two men maintained they knew nothing about his supposed CFF
"I had known Soksan for only two months. I'd heard of the CFF
activities along the border in the newspapers, but I had never had any contact
with them," said Trie after his release.
Siem, an army major and former
Khmer Rouge soldier, said he too knew nothing of Soksan's CFF
"When they arrested me they didn't handcuff me. They asked
me to accompany Soksan to the military police HQ and asked me to testify. They
said I had nothing to do with the CFF," he said.
The two were finally
released November 9 after the Municipal Court ruled that they had been
unlawfully arrested and found that there was no evidence against them. In the
meantime they said they suffered the harsh deprivations of prison meted out
particularly to CFF suspects.
"Living conditions in the prison were so
bad I can't talk about them. The government's aim was to oppress the CFF
suspects. Relationships between prisoners and our families were banned, and even
pencils and paper were taken away from us," said Trie. When his wife came from
France to see him, she was not allowed entry to the prison.
"Our cell was
three-and-a-half by seven meters with twelve prisoners and only one toilet. The
water is the most difficult thing: it is not clean. It contains dregs that cause
skin rashes for the prisoners. There is not enough water to flush out [human
waste in] the toilet," said Trie.
Prisoners were not given enough to eat
and when their families brought them extra food the guards would always take a
share. Trie said he survived on the generosity of other prisoners who shared
what little they had.
Despite the appalling conditions, Trie was not
concerned at the outcome of the trial.
"I never imagined I was guilty -
that was why I felt no fear. At the court I testified without fear at all and
always smiled. I really had anger [about my arrest] but who am I going to tell
about it?" he asked.
Others, he said, were not so lucky.
to appeal to the government to give pardons to those who were cheated into
fighting. They did not even know their way around Phnom Penh. They are poor,
just living from hand to mouth," Trie claimed, describing the convicted men as
Siem agrees that a number of those convicted were
"From my lifetime of experience as a soldier I can say that
some people convicted really were CFF fighters but others were only tricked;
they did not even know how to use a weapon."
The men celebrated their
release with their first good meal in a year and are staying with their lawyer
until they can return to their former lives.
"I have the right to protest
against the government's treatment of me. I will consult my lawyer about lodging
a complaint of illegal detention," said Trie.
But as difficult as prison
was, Trie knows that life in rural Cambodia is also tough. His greatest worry
was for his NGO, Angkor Farmer, which instructs children on morality and teaches
them Khmer, English, French and Angkorean history.
"What I worried about
most is that I might lose funding for my organization. [It] has two goals:
teaching children respect and combating sexual exploitation. However, I don't
know what has happened since I was arrested," he explained.
hopes to return to his life as it was a year ago. "I want to return to my unit
and work as normal if my commander will accept me. If not, I'll have to find a
new job with an NGO. My life has been changed by this. I was innocent; [what has
happened] is indescribable," he said.