Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Judge to joyriding returnees: five years

Judge to joyriding returnees: five years

Judge to joyriding returnees: five years


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.

Recently, Chu

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

get off.

"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.

Back at

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

another issue."

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.

Despite the

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.

By his

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."


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