By Brodie Noga
The morning heat is starting as the defendants filter into the courtroom. Most are smiling and laughing, some are taking selfies, one jokes that the court is starting to feel like his second home, one is in tears. In total there are 11 men sitting on the bench reserved for the accused, each charged with either participating in or leading an insurrection, facing 10-20 year minimum sentences for the respective counts.
The charges stem from the events of July 15th, 2014, where several hundred protested the closure of Freedom Park, a popular site of political demonstrations. While the police stood by, private security guards took out bamboo batons and began beating protestors. Some members of the crowd retaliated, striking back with PVC flagpoles and batons they had taken from the attacking guards. When the violence settled, both protestors and guards had been injured, some severely. In the days that followed, MPs from the opposition party CNRP who had attended were arrested, along with party officials and supporters.
The proceedings I witness pour cold water on any law school idealism that legal argumentation will carry the day. Contrary to the logical fact patterns we disassemble in final exams, where the law is an abstract and tangible thing, the trial is simply politics by other means. The criminal code provisions are vague and harsh, recent reforms of the judiciary leave judges squarely under the control of the executive, and the rules of evidence are co-extensive with the discretion of the judge. Indeed, there is little attempt to hide the appearance of collusion between prosecutor and the bench, as they periodically take “washroom breaks” and follow one another into their chambers.
The trial is nothing new or unexpected in Cambodia. Criminal charges have been used regularly in the past to give the ruling party bargaining leverage over the opposition.
This is of course troubling on a number of levels. But for a law student emerging from the depths of the academic study of law it represents the danger of learning law solely in the abstract. The law is found not just in its written form, rather it is a practiced enactment of state power.
This may seem like common sense, but it is easy enough to lose sight of when the immediate success in law school depends on your in-depth knowledge of the written law. If anything, this past week has made me reflect on how to be an effective advocate requires not just legal knowledge, but adeptness at negotiating the social and political context in which one is advocating.