Jewish attorney knighted in Cambodia

Phil Weiner honored for training the local police force.

By JULIE MASIS
September 12, 2019 10:18
Jewish attorney knighted in Cambodia

Phil Weiner holds the certificate in August certifying that he was admitted into the Royal Order of Cambodia. (photo credit: COURTESY OF PHIL WEINER)



Jewish attorney Phil Weiner brought home to Boston this summer something very special: a medal of the Royal Order of Sahametrei, with a certificate signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

It is the highest recognition that a foreigner can receive in Cambodia.

Previous recipients of the order included Charles de Gaulle, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia.

“I don’t know if I’m the first American [to receive it], but I assume I’m the first Jew,” said Weiner. “I felt so appreciated that they thought so much of my [work] that they petitioned the government [to give me this award] – which is a process that takes months.”

Weiner, 64, was admitted into the Royal Order because of his volunteer work to train Cambodian police and legal professionals. In the last five years, he conducted between 25 and 30 trainings according to his own estimate.

He even taught on the very day when he received his award. That morning, starting at 7:45, he lectured to about 50 Cambodian detectives about crime scene management.

When a fatal car accident or another deadly crime occurs in Cambodia, a crowd with smartphones in hand quickly gathers, and photographs and videos of bloody bodies end up on Facebook and in the newspapers. Weiner himself witnessed a murder-suicide scene in Cambodia a couple of years ago, and described the management of the scene as “a total disaster.”

“There were about 100 people in a hallway of a building and two dead bodies, and people were just walking over them and taking pictures,” he said. “It was outrageous.”

Police should have set up a perimeter around the scene, interviewed witnesses, collected forensic evidence – and they shouldn’t have allowed bystanders to walk all over the place.

“Every time someone goes in, it contaminates the scene,” Weiner said. “Every crime scene has to be searched and searched properly for narcotics. It could be after a rape occurred, it could be filled with stolen goods, it could be a scene of a terrorist explosion.”

Weiner said he isn’t sure if Cambodian police had any training in crime-scene management prior to the class he taught.

A few weeks before the class on crime-scene management, he gave a lecture on how to interview victims of sexual assault, because in Cambodia, police sometimes interview rape victims right outside with people walking by, and with journalists listening in. Later, the full names of rape victims end up in newspapers and on the Internet.

“You don’t do that,” Weiner said. “You go to the police station. You have to interview them in private, not even in front of other police officers.”

He said that there are also special techniques for interviewing child and elderly victims of sexual assault.

Weiner also worked with the FBI to organize a training program on fighting cybercrime in Cambodia, and taught the first courses on criminal causation and conspiracy.

Criminal causation pertains to a homicide involving multiple people – whereas law enforcement has to make decisions about who is responsible and who isn’t; conspiracy, on the other hand, involves a situation where several people agreed to join together to commit a crime. In the last five years, Cambodia introduced conspiracy law into certain types of crimes, such as terrorism and theft.

“It will be interesting to see how Cambodian conspiracy law develops,” said Weiner. “Some of the [attendees in my training sessions] were young judges. They’re going to make the decisions to see where the law heads.”

An unusual challenge for police detectives in Cambodia is that autopsies are not permitted in Cambodia for religious reasons. Because of this, it can be difficult to establish the cause of death – or even to find out if someone was murdered or died as a result of an accident.

“For example, imagine that they find a burned body inside a building,” he explained. “They figure case over. But when they take the body and X-ray it, they see two projectile wounds in the head. Now they know they’ve got a murder, not just a person who died by accident.”

Weiner added that he is not sure whether Cambodian police use DNA evidence in their crime investigations.

Weiner was a law professor and a prosecutor in the United States, working mostly on cases involving organized crime and narcotics. He originally came to Cambodia to serve as chief of staff for the Investigative Judges Office at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The United Nations tribunal was set up to bring to justice the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime that was responsible for the deaths of almost a third of Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979.

Weiner’s job at the court was to interview witnesses and survivors.

“It’s almost unbelievable, the information that we received” from survivors, he said. “In Cambodia, you had mass killings of children, concentration camps, medical experimentation on human beings – similar to what the Nazis had done. I was involved in the case of genocide against the Vietnamese. There is a statement from a witness that ‘No Vietnamese could be spared, not even a baby in a cradle.’”

Prior to his work in Cambodia, Weiner worked on war crimes tribunals in the former Yugoslavia.

“I think growing up with the Holocaust, you kind of understand what mass crimes are like, because since childhood you’d see neighbors with tattoos on their arms, you’d hear about it at the synagogue,” he said. “Maybe growing up Jewish and hearing about the Holocaust, you have a better understanding of these crimes.”

In November, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal sentenced two of the regime’s leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Cham Muslims and Vietnamese, Cambodia’s ethnic minorities. Nuon Chea, who was the chief ideologist of the Khmer Rouge, passed away on August 4 at the age of 93. Khieu Samphan, who is 88, is still alive and is currently appealing the conviction.

Although his work at the tribunal is completed, Weiner has returned to Cambodia time and again – sometimes flying for 30 hours around the world with heavy textbooks in his suitcases – to teach more classes to Cambodian police and legal professionals despite struggling with chronic bronchitis, which he suspects might be exacerbated by the air pollution in Cambodia’s capital.
He is planning to come back to Cambodia for a conference and to teach another course.

“I had police officers who came over to me and said, ‘I’ve so much enjoyed your classes!’” he said. “It really makes you feel good. I hope I’ll be back.”


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