With a reluctant glance at the sky hanging heavy over Phnom Penh after a thunderstorm, Felicia Farias Nizama reminisced about the cool, delicate climate of her hometown in the mountains of Peru.
An impossible mix of bitterness and idealism, this diminutive Peruvian woman has become an unlikely legal advocate in Cambodia, where, since her son’s arrest on drug trafficking charges, she has plodded through a foreign legal system in the hope of securing her son’s release.
She doesn’t speak Khmer or even English, but her greatest struggle isn’t to communicate—it’s to understand what she, almost two years after her son’s arrest in 2006, still animatedly describes as a horrifying injustice.
Rodolfo Nick Otero Farias, 29, a former customs officer in the Peruvian capital, Lima, was arrested Oct 9, 2006 with his Thai girlfriend, Wan Pasum Sudjai, 27, on suspicion of drug trafficking in Siem Reap town, where they say they were sightseeing.
Otero Farias was sentenced July 25, 2007, to 20 years in Prey Sar prison.
He maintains his innocence, as does his mother. His only crime, the accused says, was that his mobile phone number was listed in the phone of another Peruvian, Heder Martel, who was arrested by Cambodian police earlier and found to have 300 grams of cocaine stashed in his stomach.
Farias Nizama says Martel admitted to investigators that her son “had nothing to do with the matter.”
She further says that her son and his girlfriend were forced by authorities to confess that they were “drug traffickers.”
After nine months of investigation, she says, the couple was handed their sentence.
“Twenty years, without drugs, without anything,” she said in Spanish, while shaking her head.
An ocean away in Paita, Peru, Farias Nizama had scraped together the funds for a one-way ticket to Cambodia in February 2007 to support her son in what has become an exhausting and demoralizing battle.
She left behind two daughters—one still in high school—her home and her native language to find herself a bewildered foreigner in Cambodia, not knowing a soul aside from her jailed son. She is grateful for the generosity of various friends, family members and even strangers—a Guatemalan pastor and his family who live in Kompong Chhnang province have welcomed her into their home. Family members in Peru and the US send her money so she can pay for her frequent motorcycle taxi rides to the capital and to Prey Sar prison.
But the setbacks she has faced in trying to have her son freed have shaken her faith.
Farias Nizama secured three different private lawyers for her son’s defense at the municipal court level, each one more disappointing than the last, she said.
One lawyer, she recounted, “said the case was easy.” But hundreds of dollars in legal fees spent and more than a year and a half of lobbying later, her son is still in prison, and she is still in Cambodia.
Penniless and disappointed as she is, she is not giving up hope just yet; the Cambodian Defenders Project has stepped in with some support, offering a new lawyer, Sok Dara, who is representing her son at the appeal level.
“All I want is for the appeal to be done as soon as possible,” Farias Nizama said. The Appeal Court has not yet scheduled a hearing date.
Adding to Farias Nizama’s building sense of urgency is her concern over the conditions at Prey Sar, where she claimed her son is forced to pay the guards to be allowed outside his cell during the day.
“They charge him for sunlight,” she says.
It doesn’t help his treatment that he is a foreigner, she suspects, adding that when the guards tell prisoners to pay up, foreigners are always charged more.
He has complained of dehydration and bacterial infections, she said, and like any mother would, she worries he’s not getting enough to eat.
“Soup is supposed to have meat in it,” she says, adding that at Prey Sar, her son is lucky to get a little salt.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Prey Sar Correctional Center 1 Director Mong Kim Heng denied that prisoners are required to pay to leave their cells and said foreigners receive the same treatment as any prisoner.
“All prisoners here, including Cambodians and foreigners, are allowed to leave the prison cells every day,” he said. “Specifically, it is not required to pay to get out of the cell to get fresh air in the garden.”
He added that there is a doctor on staff at Prey Sar, but to his knowledge no Peruvian prisoner has contracted any illness or infection.
A photographed version of Rodolfo, serious and businesslike in a dark suit and tie, looks up from various documents carried by his mother, who appears eager to hand them to anyone willing to take a peek at his previous life, so far from the imprisonment he now endures.
Here is proof of my son’s completion of his customs officer training, she says, flipping through a stack of documents she has meticulously organized and photocopied, like an activist passing out fliers at a weekend demonstration. Here is another proving his lack of a criminal record, she continues.
“He had a job,” she says. “He didn’t need to sell drugs.”
Determined as she is, she is not unaware of the limits of the legal process.
Though she intends to stay in Cambodia until all resources are beyond exhausted, she admits that at this point, there are few avenues left that would offer her son another chance, and a way out of his 20-year jail sentence.
“I’ve knocked on so many doors,” she says. “We are playing the last card.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)