I used to think that the phrase miscarriage of justice was oddly visceral. Having felt my heart slow, my chest become heavy, and my stomach wrench as the “Phnom Penh 11” were handed down 20 and seven year sentences in a deeply flawed legal proceeding after a mere 15 minutes of deliberation, it now feels sterile.
The trial of the 11 opposition party officials and activists I was observing had deteriorated quickly after an opposition led boycott of a vote on the NGO law and a major political rally held at a contested area of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Plaintiffs conveniently failed to show when summoned and instead had suspiciously similar written statements read into the record; after months of delay the trial was suddenly sped up to a daily schedule despite defence lawyer protestations that they would be unable to attend; the day of the verdict only one of the nine defence counsel was present; closing arguments were announced with three minutes notice; and as as the judges left to deliberate, scores of police were mobilized to shut down the streets surrounding the Court and to fill the courtroom.
When it became clear that the outcome was pre-determined, the 11 men charged with leading and participating in an insurrection – despite a total absence of any accusation that they’d committed acts violence or that the events of July 15 2014 had in any way amounted to an insurrectionary movement – began to joke. One man, whose son had died that morning, teased the court police that he needed to pee before the verdict was rendered and promised he wouldn’t run away. Others asked the guards if they could have their cellphones back so they could give them to their family before they were jailed. While my translator conveyed these words to me he would interject and tell me how these words hurt his heart. They hurt mine, too.
And then the verdict came, read so quickly most couldn’t even catch who received which sentence, and the police handcuffed the 11 to lead them to prison. As we left, my translator told me that he was glad to see the verdict so that now he will be prepared for when they come for him. And then my heart hurt for him as well.
As students of law we often talk about justice and injustice, but it is nearly always in the abstract. The trial is far from the first terrible thing that I have witnessed, but the emotional charge that hung in the air as the verdict was read continues to haunt me. But it wasn’t the catalog of fair trial violations in my notebook that was disturbing, it was the performance of state power before me, it was the men aware of their looming sentence, it was the nervous energy of the audience, it was the rapidity of the judge’s speech as the sentence was read. Law in the abstract never really exists without law in the concrete. A miscarriage of justice isn’t just a failure of the court to abide by abstract codes of behaviour, it is the immensely visceral interaction between humans whose final reality exists in their flesh. For me and for those in the audience, the physicality of the injustice was vicarious. For those 11 who felt the handcuffs around their wrists, it was far more immediate.