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A heavy heat blanketed the dilapidated courthouse in rural Cambodia. Christie Warren dropped her bag on an old wooden table as she eyed the peeling paint, broken floors and layers of red dirt that caked the walls of the courtroom. Roosters crowed and carts clattered by outside. It was the summer of 1995, and Warren, 44, had recently left behind a 16-year career with the Sacramento, Calif., Public Defender to work for the Cambodia Court Training Project. On this day, she recalls, she’d traveled to Kompong Speu, a farming province where there was still sporadic Khmer Rouge fighting, to lecture the local judges. The former lead trainer and death penalty lawyer in her California office, Warren recalls feeling confident and well prepared. The four judges, in traditional Cambodian style, greeted her with wide smiles and deep bows. Warren began her speech, explaining the separation of powers, the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and her key point: judicial independence. “You have to make your decisions based on the facts and the law, independent of what society thinks, and without any other influences,” she remembers exhorting them. When she was finished, the chief judge — a small, wiry man in short sleeves — stood up. “Follow me,” he said with a smile. He led her down a long, dark hallway to his office, a small room with an old wooden table and folding chair. The judge pointed to a large, empty window covered with vertical bars. In the lower right-hand corner, about a foot square of them had been sawed out. “What is that?” Warren asked. “That is so I can climb out of the window when the military comes and threatens me to decide a case in a certain way. Now, what are you saying about judicial independence?” Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia’s legal system was literally destroyed. In its fanatical pursuit of a socialist utopia, the Khmer Rouge targeted the educated and professional classes. Lawyers and judges were executed — or died of starvation, disease, or forced labor. Law books were burned. Courthouses were converted to barns, prisons and slaughterhouses. Until a few years ago, blood still stained many courthouse walls. Although Vietnam restored some semblance of order when it occupied the country in 1979, it failed to develop governmental institutions. In 1991 the United Nations brokered a peace accord and installed a transitional government, but the hastily cobbled together statutes did little to create a functioning justice system. Most of Cambodia’s judges, appointed under Vietnamese occupation, had barely finished high school. It wasn’t until 1993 that a statute even pronounced the judiciary independent of the executive branch and the dominant Cambodian People’s Party. The current government — a constitutional monarchy with political power concentrated in the prime minister — has acknowledged that political influence on the judiciary is an ongoing problem. Although the United Nations has been criticized for pulling out of Cambodia too soon, it is credited with at least awakening international interest in this country of fewer than 12 million, spawning a proliferation of foreign-sponsored nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). American lawyers such as Christie Warren are part of the U.N.’s legacy. Since the mid-1990s, dozens of them have come to Cambodia with the dream of molding a legal system. Cambodia’s harrowing history has left the place desperate — for the expertise of American lawyers, and for just about everything else. So while these attorneys say they felt superfluous in the United States, in a nation just beginning to develop its justice system (Cambodia has neither a comprehensive criminal code nor rules of civil procedure), they feel needed. And they are. But can U.S. lawyers export the American way of justice? Particularly to a country with such a turbulent past? Attorneys are increasingly taking on the task, attempting to rebuild foreign legal systems, usually to mirror our own more closely. Like Peace Corps workers who fan out to teach English, lawyers travel to fresh disaster areas to establish what they generically refer to as “the rule of law.” They’ve followed the U.N. to Kosovo and East Timor, for example, and eventually may end up in Afghanistan. But how do such projects fare on the ground? After the U.N. left Cambodia, American lawyers poured in to train judges, teach law, draft statutes and create and advise legal aid organizations. (Although, as a former French colony, Cambodia subscribes to a system of civil law rather than one based on common law, Americans have focused on the basics of advocacy and decision-making that theoretically apply to both.) But a bloody coup staged by the current prime minister in 1997 — and a resulting drop in U.S. government funding — drove many expats away. Some have returned, and a new generation has drifted in. For foreign lawyers in Cambodia today, however, the rewards are limited. Although the combination of American expertise and audacity can provide a shot in the arm to Cambodia’s fledgling bar, Americans who go there for an ego boost slowly learn the limits of their influence. By turns visionary, presumptuous and escapist, the best of them can’t help but sour from the frustrations of trying to grow a viable justice system in a legal wasteland. George Cooper was sick. A tall man with close-cropped, graying blond hair and mournful blue eyes, he sat in his office sucking intently on throat lozenges. It was a typically hot September morning in Phnom Penh, and although a small air conditioner droned from one of the dusty, barred windows, it couldn’t overcome the 100-degree heat and humidity that pervades this congested capital. Phnom Penh is a low-rise city marked by a disconcerting mix of golden-steepled Buddhist temples, tin-roofed roadside shacks and fading French colonial villas. The sensory assault is amplified by the choking dust that’s kicked up by an insane number of motos (motorbikes) — and, more recently, cars — that lawlessly crisscross the potholed red-dirt roads. Speaking in a flat tone, Cooper looked away, his voice trailing off as he described how a 53-year-old, Virginia-born lawyer ended up in this cramped legal aid office in Southeast Asia. In his blue-striped alligator shirt, buttoned high, Cooper looked stiffly clean-cut, almost preppy, as if trying to impose order on chaos. Since May 1998, Cooper has been a consultant at Legal Aid of Cambodia, a nonprofit created in 1995 to respond to a dire problem with the country’s legal system: the complete absence of lawyers. Legal Aid was designed to train Cambodians to defend the thousands of unrepresented detainees who crowded Cambodian prisons. The second such project to be started by an ambitious young American attorney named Francis James, it has since expanded into a full-fledged, American-style legal aid organization. Its lawyers help Cambodia’s poor not only with average criminal and divorce cases, but also with the country’s more particular troubles — including baby trafficking, forced prostitution, illegal land confiscation and the prolonged detention and torture of prisoners. Cooper joined Legal Aid in May 1998. After years of practicing land law in Hawaii, he was divorced and unattached. Feeling he’d outlived his usefulness at home, Cooper set off to travel through Asia. Two years later, “bored and looking for a change,” he heard about Legal Aid. With little more to go on than a couple of encouraging e-mails from its persuasive founder, Cooper boarded a plane to Phnom Penh: “I could see no reason not to go, and every reason to do it.” Since arriving, Cooper has plunged wholeheartedly into his role. While many expats maintain a cool distance from their surroundings, Cooper gets personally involved in the problems of those around him: clients, employees, women in bars. “Everywhere I go here, I see trouble,” he said recently, shaking his head, his eyes on the floor. “It’s unusual to be off on a Friday night and not see some Cambodian with a problem. Medical, whatever — I’ll do something, give them a number of a foreign doctor, pay for the visit.” As a single white man, Cooper admits he’s a magnet for young local women in distress. In a country where almost 80 percent of adult women are illiterate, and sex trafficking and domestic violence are rampant, there’s no shortage of them. Just recently, Cooper says, he gave a young prostitute $100 to pay her way out of a brothel. He took in another distressed woman escaping an abusive boyfriend. “I see so much need,” he said with a sigh, resting his head on his hands. “I think that’s why I get sick a lot.” Cooper gets sick so often that last winter, he had to go home to Hawaii for four months to recuperate. He lived in a tree house (literally a house in a tree) and spent his time meditating, doing yoga and hiking to recover. He returned to Cambodia last June. The legal cases Cooper handles aren’t easy, either. As founder of the organization’s land law unit, he responds to the turmoil caused by a patchwork of laws that attempt to reinstate land ownership in a country where it was abolished decades ago. The result is not only nasty disputes between neighbors over newly created borders, but massive land grabs by commercial developers or military officials who see an opportunity to make large amounts of quick cash. Take the recent land dispute in the province of Ratanakiri. It wasn’t until January of 1999 that Cooper and his colleagues learned about it, but back in 1997, lawyers and human rights workers claim, the presiding military general in the rural farming province realized a way to get almost 500 acres of prime property from about 900 indigenous villagers without paying for it. Following a carefully constructed law that allows villagers to obtain legal title to land they’ve inhabited or cultivated for five or more years, the general allegedly paid local officials to round up villagers. Those collected were instructed to thumbprint documents (a common practice in Cambodia, where many residents cannot sign their names), which, without their knowledge, villagers say, gave them legal rights to the land they and their ancestors had lived on for generations. Soon after, the general allegedly had officials gather a second group to thumbprint another set of documents — sales agreements that handed all of the newly titled land over to him. Human rights workers learned of the incident by chance and contacted Legal Aid, whose lawyers filed a complaint in the provincial court. Last March, 14 villagers bravely testified that they had thumbprinted documents in the names of others, including children, because they’d been promised that it would bring “development” to their village. District officials admitted in court that they’d received $35,000 from the general for their part in the affair. The judge took less than 10 minutes to return a ruling. Each of the villagers, he decided, had agreed to sell their land. The price? Two bags of salt. The verdict was a disappointment, but hardly a surprise. Few Cambodians expect poor villagers to win a high-stakes case against a powerful government official. Indeed, despite recent land laws crafted with the help of many foreigners, judges privately admit — and the court training project’s Christie Warren quickly learned — that such cases are not decided on legal merit. As one provincial judge said in a recent interview: “If there is a land dispute between generals and simple Cambodians, according to his rank, the court has to rule to the high-ranking person. The simple person will lose.” Although this judge did not admit to taking bribes, in a country where civil servants, including judges, earn an average of $20 a month (Legal Aid lawyers earn more than $300), judicial corruption is reportedly rampant. It’s also a source of constant frustration for American expat lawyers. And despite the steady stream of American and other foreign programs that have during the past decade aimed to revamp the laws and teach judges to apply them, lawyers and international human rights groups say that the situation has not significantly improved. When Francis James went to Cambodia back in 1994, he didn’t know enough to be intimidated by the enormity of the country’s legal challenges. A graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, James had been an associate in the Los Angeles office of Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie for a year and a half before he moved to the prestigious federal public defenders office, for the trial experience. After two years, he’d won a string of trials and argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pleased with his job, his girlfriend and his new SUV, James wasn’t looking to move on. But when he heard about an opportunity to start and direct his own law project on the other side of the world — he leapt. With a m�lange of Chinese, Vietnamese, French and American ancestry, James was raised “French with an Asian overlay.” Confident and boyishly good-looking, in a perfectly pressed blue dress shirt, black slacks and polished shoes, he sat in a Manhattan conference room reflecting on the way he pioneered the Cambodian defense bar. Now director of international programs at the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, James offered a lengthy narrative of his background, peppered with assurances that whatever his experiences had been — from teaching English to refugees on the Thai border to studying contracts in law school — they were all “great, just great,” “really fun” and “easy.” Although he referred repeatedly to the French aspect of his upbringing, James has also clearly taken advantage of his Asian heritage. After graduating with a degree in Asian Studies from the University of Notre Dame, he spent a year in Singapore and then hopped among Asian refugee camps. He was inspired there to become a lawyer: “Law seemed a means of empowerment.” He was only 29 when, in 1993, he saw the International Human Rights Law Group’s job advertisement. “When I saw what they were looking for, I said, ‘They’ll never get this person, because it’s me.’ ” He accepted the job under one condition: “ I would only do it if I was the director. I wanted to do it my way.” Because at the time there were almost no lawyers, the goal was to train lay Cambodians to act as public defenders. After 10 months, James was expected to leave behind legal advocates who could transfer the legacy to others. But could an unseasoned L.A. lawyer create an effective criminal defense bar in a shattered country that had none? The whole concept of defense counsel was foreign to Cambodians. In courtrooms, there wasn’t even a defense table, say American lawyers who worked there -� just a semicircular wooden railing that served as the dock. Although Cambodia’s notoriously harsh prisons were filled with inmates, no one represented them. James was undaunted. Arriving in Phnom Penh’s shacklike airport in 1994, he carried a small expandable suitcase, a laptop, and a list of contacts from local human rights organizations. He also had a wad of cash — part of a $250,000 budget from the Law Group, which had received the funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With an interpreter and two other American lawyers, he trained Cambodia’s first “barefoot defenders,” as he calls them. After 10 months, he had 25. What had been a training ground now became the country’s first institutional defender’s office: Cambodian Defenders Project. Of course, James still had to convince the Ministry of Justice to let his new team actually represent people, a task that led him to shave his head and spend three days in a monastery to prove his respect for the Cambodian system. It worked. For the first time in anyone’s memory, defenders were standing up in court on behalf of poor Cambodians clad in royal blue prison garb, to argue against illegal detention, coerced confessions and convictions based on secret evidence. With all this success, by 1995 James’s confidence had swelled. But so had his frustration with the law group. There was a falling-out over grant money, and soon James was gone. (He and his former employer disagree on whose choice that was.) Six months later, using Dutch aid, he started a competing organization just blocks away: Legal Aid of Cambodia. (James left that organization less than two years later to become a fellow in the Clinton White House.) Six years later, the two organizations are still barely on speaking terms. Both are now full-service legal aid organizations, with offices in the capital and in provinces around the country. Each has been turned over to local management, but retains a mostly foreign board of directors dominated by pro bono American lawyers. Both also attract a steady stream of foreign consultants who cycle through to offer training and guidance. But a persistent cloud hangs over this sunny story: If corruption is rampant among judges, what difference can lawyers make? A great deal, when plaintiff and defendant share roughly equal stature. What’s more, simply having a defense lawyer stand up in court is beginning to alter the way Cambodians view their relationship to authority. “There’s this one thing that’s clear,” says Isaiah “Skip” Gant, an American lawyer who worked at the Cambodian Defenders Project from 1996 until last year, “whether you’re talking about politics, law or anything else — there is this fear of what the Khmer call ‘the big guy.’ Everybody’s got a big guy — someone that you feel is superior to you, that you owe allegiance to; but for the existence of that person you wouldn’t be able to eat, sleep, walk or anything else. Fear of the big guy permeates everything that goes on in Cambodia.” In July 1999 the big-guy syndrome had Gant frustrated. It was the third day of trial, and still, he recalls, the defense team he was coaching hadn’t raised a single objection. The judge and prosecutor were running roughshod over the defendants, humiliating them in the packed courtroom. The defense lawyers, meanwhile, appeared dumbfounded. They’d been supposedly preparing this case for weeks — a high-profile trial of two human rights workers and eight others from the usually sleepy port town of Sihanoukville. The defendants, it seemed, had been accused of inciting a riot. The melee had begun after villagers learned that 3,000 tons of toxic waste had been dumped on the outskirts of the town. Suspecting a government payoff, an agitated crowd had set upon official buildings and burned the deputy governor’s home. Although the damage was clear, the charges against these particular defendants were not. And if evidence did exist, the defense lawyers had not been allowed to see it. The first day and a half of trial had not gone well. Not only were the charges unspecified, but, when the prosecution’s witnesses didn’t show up, the judge allowed the prosecutor to substitute their written statements for live testimony. Although it clearly violated the defendants’ rights, their lawyers said nothing. “Gang, listen. You’ve got to get up on your feet and object,” Gant implored the defense team over the lunch break. But back in court, the lawyers still didn’t say a word. Over and over, during breaks and then during an unexpected two-week recess, Gant explained that they could use the law: “You tell me what the judge won’t let you do,” he remembers telling the group, “and I’ll show you where in Cambodian law it says that the judge has to let you do it.” But when they returned, nothing had changed. Gant tried again over lunch, entreating them: “Try it my way, just this one time.” Back in the courtroom, Gant watched expectantly. And something changed. Tentatively, Gant recalls, one of the lawyers from his office stood up. “Your Honor,” he said in Khmer, “I make a motion to dismiss the case.” “Dismiss the case? What do you mean?” asked the judge. “I never heard of such a motion.” “We do not know what our clients are charged with,” the lawyer responded. The judge was silent for a moment, then barked: “Sit down.” But the others were now emboldened. A second lawyer stood, Gant recalls. “I move to dismiss the charges,” he said. Again, the judge denied the motion. “There is no such thing,” the judge declared. Then a third lawyer stood. “I move to join the motion to dismiss,” he announced. And so it went. Gant, now 55 and living in Albany, N.Y., remembers the climax with pride: “The next thing you know, each stood up and joined in the motion and said, ‘I don’t know what the charge is.’ … Soon, they had the judge and the prosecutor at their wits’ end. All of a sudden they realized they had this huge advantage because they could cite the law.” That afternoon, the prosecutor dropped the charges. The judge dismissed the case. Gant calls it the highlight of his four years in Cambodia. Still, a country that had no lawyers and frighteningly few legally trained judges just five years ago is not going to become a model of constitutionalism overnight. (Indeed, the constitution itself is less than 10 years old.) “These things are evolutionary,” says Jeffrey Falt, who headed the American Bar Association’s Democracy and Law program in Cambodia from 1996 to 1998 and now sits on CDP’s board of directors. He’s been active in the growing field of international legal development, working in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, among other places. “I’ve seen this transition happen. And it does happen eventually. But development takes a long time.” Although the first wave of lawyers came to Cambodia with high-minded notions of fashioning a new legal system, the second wave is left to face the facts on the ground. Some early efforts, such as the court training project, are widely criticized for having naively relied on inexperienced and unacculturated American attorneys to do too much too quickly. Others projects, like several run by the University of San Francisco to teach law and print law books, are generally praised. The defenders projects, however, are almost universally lauded. “Without these organizations, I don’t know what we would do,” says Kek Galabru, director of a leading Cambodian human rights organization that relies frequently on legal aid lawyers and complains only that there aren’t enough of them. “For many cases, we need a lawyer, and we don’t have the resources.” Cambodia now has about 200 native lawyers. Although many more await bar admission, cumbersome procedures and bar association politics have stalled their certification. Of course, training lawyers is just a small part of creating a functioning judicial system. That will take generations. “If this tree takes a long time to grow, then we should plant it now,” says Patricia Baars, a former general counsel to the District of Columbia who’s been teaching law and working with legislators in Phnom Penh since 1996. A decade ago, American interest in Cambodia was on the rise; so was American funding. But the 1997 coup shifted the United States’ posture toward Cambodia. Congress cut off aid to the government, and many American lawyers went home. The Cambodia Court Training Project and the University of San Francisco’s programs that worked with the state and received funding from USAID were shut down. Indeed, overall U.S. assistance to Cambodia has dropped by more than half since 1997 (and by more than two-thirds since its high in 1993), and support for much of the legal development that started has since dried up. Although nongovernmental organizations, such as the Cambodian Defenders Project, can still receive USAID money, their funding is tenuous and depends on short-term grants that each year have to survive searching scrutiny. There’s a crisis-of-the-month quality to U.S. government funding, say USAID employees. With the situation in central Asia, strategically insignificant countries such as Cambodia are sure to slide down the priority scale. After 30 years of war, Cambodia is finally in a period of relative peace. Although the country is still mired in poverty, the Khmer Rouge is no longer a force of terror in the hills, and residents say they no longer hear gunfire at night on Phnom Penh’s now bustling streets. The Hun Sen government has even agreed to participate in a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders. It’s a confluence of factors, say longtime Cambodia observers, that makes this a particularly good time to be pressing for advancement of the rule of law. Many who have left have taken the legal development show on the road, fleeing the routines of their domestic legal practices to join the ranks of lawyers who spend weeks, months or years in devastated countries in the hopes of transplanting many elements of that practice abroad. Such lawyers caution that there is no cookie-cutter model of legal development; it’s a delicate process that must be tailored to each nation’s unique background. And most admit that it’s more educational for the Americans who go than for the local lawyers they’re trying to train. Still, the attorneys who do this work — whether drifters, adventurers or entrepreneurs — remain, on the whole, idealists — like Christie Warren, who retains an almost childlike enthusiasm for its possibilities. Warren is no longer a public defender — “It was too limiting,” she says. She now teaches at William and Mary School of Law in Virginia. Between semesters, she parachutes into war-torn countries for weeks at a time to help rebuild their legal systems. It’s work she discusses with a passion that seems more suited to an art form than a job. Warren describes sitting in on “law camp” during the first week of school this fall, when the teacher used a hypothetical to encourage his new students to think about the law imaginatively: “A spaceship full of people crashes on an uninhabited planet,” he began. “They have to create a civilization from scratch. So they decide to set up a justice system. They can do whatever they want. What should they do?” Warren sat in the back of the room, smiling. “I was thinking, ‘That’s it — that is my work.’ “

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