Share this article

print logo


You can get anything you want in Cambodia, Francis J. James says.

"I could have you shot dead for $10, no problem," said James, a Williamsville native who lived in that Asian nation for 3 1/2 years. "You want a little boy? No problem. A little girl? No problem."

The only thing you can't get -- or at least, couldn't get until James arrived -- was justice.

Cambodia has been the Wild West of the Far East for 20 years, ever since the despotic dictator Pol Pot killed hundreds of thousands of people and essentially destroyed most traces of modern civilization, including the justice system.

The concept of a fair trial is coming back in Cambodia, though, thanks in part to James, who founded Legal Aid of Cambodia to train Cambodians to defend their own in court.

And now, despite a coup that left bodies in the streets last summer, there's some hope for the legions of Cambodians who end up wrongly accused of crimes.

James' efforts helped win him a spot in the prestigious White House Fellows program, which places America's best and brightest in federal agencies for a year to help them learn. Yet James, 33, seems far more proud of what he left behind in Cambodia than what he's doing now in Washington.

"When we got there, there were less than five lawyers in the whole country, and now there are 65," James said. "When I got there, there was no concept of a public defender. The courtrooms were filled with bullet holes and cows wandering in and out. Now, things have been cleaned up, and there's always a table in the courtroom for the defense lawyer."

Working as a public defender in Los Angeles but nurturing a passion for the Far East that he developed during a trip to Taiwan while a student at Canisius High School, James made a big change in his life in 1994.

He was chosen to head the Cambodian Defenders Project, a new program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development designed to train defense lawyers in a country that really had none.

Eight months later, James' crash course in criminal defense procedures had trained 25 people, but he knew his work wasn't done. And so, with grants from the United Nations and various international aid groups, Legal Aid of Cambodia was born.

"We were really the first law firm in the whole country," he said.

It wasn't easy work. Cambodian roads are rough and bridges often nonexistent, meaning James had to travel the countryside on motorbike and ferry just to get to his organization's regional offices.

Worse yet, James quickly found that the term "judge" meant something different in Cambodia than in America.

"When a person gets arrested in Cambodia, there's a race to the court to pay off the judge," James said. "The judges earn $20 a month, but some of them drive cars and carry cellular phones and wear gold jewelry. Now how do you explain that?"

The judges were startled, then, when Legal Aid of Cambodia appeared. Eventually, though, the judges caught the hang of it and would agree not to take money in cases in which Legal Aid of Cambodia represented the defendant.

"We ended up in the strange situation where only the poorest of the poor got justice," James said.

Justice was earned not only with conventional legal techniques but also with subtle pressure.

While Americans could not try cases in Cambodian courts, "we'd sit there in the front row because the judges would be much more responsible if there were Americans in there," James said. "I'd get the U.S. ambassador to sit in on big cases."

Once, James' parents -- William, a pathologist at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, and Genevieve, who teaches French at Canisius College -- even got to play a part in the Cambodian court system when James took them into a trial.

"The judge had no idea who they were," James said. "He just thought he'd have to be very careful. It was a little ploy on my part."

Before long, the concept of acquittals had seeped through some parts of the Cambodian judiciary. James recalls one case in which a pregnant woman was imprisoned, allegedly for stealing jewelry from a home.

"The police had burned her with cigarette stubs to get her to admit she had done it," even though she hadn't, James said. "We got her acquitted, she got out of jail and had her baby, and we put her in Mother Theresa's mission there.

"Now she works for them, and the kid is three years old. If she had been convicted, she would have had to raise the kid in prison, because that's what they do over there. Instead, she's free."

Such victories were rare, though.

"You lose more than you win," James said. "If you win one or two out of 15 cases, you're lucky."

Even so, those who worked with James can't say enough about the program he started.

"My client was raped by three military men at gunpoint," said Lean Chenda, a Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer, in an interview on the group's Internet home page. "The men offered to pay her a small sum to settle the case. She refused. . . . I am still pursuing the case. If Legal Aid had not taken the case, there would never be any justice for the victim."

Jennifer Smith, a University at Buffalo graduate from Williamsville who now attends law school at Boston University, spent more than a year working with James in Cambodia. She noted that the Cambodian lawyers and plenty of others were instrumental in Legal Aid's success, but that James was the inspiration that made the organization work.

"He has an inner strength and an inner calm, and he thinks that if you really imagine something, it can come true," she said. "He was always the person who wasn't weak in the face of adversity."

Adversity came in bunches this summer. Ms. Smith, James and other legal aid workers were in their offices one day in early July planning Ms. Smith's birthday party when they heard the rumbling of tanks down the streets.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had shared power with First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh since the UN-sponsored elections of 1993, had launched a coup to take sole control of the country.

James, Ms. Smith and the other Americans moved to a hotel they considered safe and stayed for two days, waiting for the shooting outside to stop. Oddly, though, they weren't overly afraid.

"We'd all been there long enough to know who was fighting and who wouldn't be involved," she said. "It wasn't the all-out war of 20 years earlier."

When they left the hotel, they went straight back to work. Hun Sen may have taken control, but he didn't put Legal Aid of Cambodia totally out of business.

"Suddenly, anything that was in any way political was off limits," James said. "Cases were put completely on hold. You could still get involved in murder or rape cases -- as long as the case didn't involve a political professional.

"The courts are still operating, but there's a culture of fear now," he said.

Not long after the coup, James departed for Washington, leaving the organization he started in the hands of one American and several newly minted Cambodian lawyers.

"It was hard for him to go," Ms. Smith said. "Legal Aid was sort of his baby."

In the United States, James found himself in a much different world. The White House assigned him to work with the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and he suddenly found himself hob-nobbing with the D.C.'s power elite.

The seeds of James' White House fellowship were sown two years ago, when that year's fellows traveled to Cambodia, and U.S. Embassy staff mentioned it to James.

"I didn't want to be an expatriate," he said. "I had done corporate work, but I was not all that thrilled with being a corporate lawyer. So I thought about this and said: What a good way to jump into the top levels of government."

Indeed. Attendees at the fellows' welcoming reception included former White House press secretary Jim Brady and former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, and the program will include private sessions with all sorts of top current leaders.

There are 10 other White House fellows in the 1997-98 class, including other prominent young lawyers and up-and-coming military officers.

"I still don't know how I'm in there," James said.

Now, well into his year in Washington, James still thinks of Cambodia, and hopes what he began there can spread throughout Southeast Asia.

He worked as a consultant to start a similar legal aid program in Vietnam, "and the idea is to eventually move into China," he said.

"China is the big prize."

There are no comments - be the first to comment