Prey Sar Odd Couple Walk to Own New Year Beat

There is no official Khmer New Year celebration in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison. As far as prison authorities are concerned, April 14, 15, and 16 are just like any other days.

But for two prisoners—a rogue Cambodian-American lawyer locked up for assaulting journalists and a British businessman accused of defrauding millions from U.K. pension funds—the average day can be quite odd.

Gregg Fryett, the Briton, and David Chanaiwa, the lawyer, march to their own beat. While the majority of prisoners must cram into a small chicken-wire enclosure to spend precious moments with loved ones during the Khmer New Year, Mr. Fryett and Mr. Chanaiwa, with the blessing of prison guards, host guests in their own sunny courtyard.

Mr. Fryett, a 41-year-old Briton who is in pre-trial detention on forgery and money laundering charges, cuts a tall, broad figure. He walks with confidence and purpose. He has been in Prey Sar prison for more than a year.

Upon locating his New Year’s guests among the melee of visitors, Mr. Fryett ushered them, with no instruction or interference from prison guards, to a removed courtyard where Mr. Chanaiwa waited.

“I wear a police badge. I’m fine in here,” Mr. Fryett said, pointing to the police-issue pendant hanging from his prison jumpsuit.

One nearby prison guard agreed. “Mr. Gregg is very popular here,” he said. “He can walk everywhere inside here with no problems.”

In the courtyard, Mr. Chan­aiwa, 44, sat cross-legged on a mat between two palm trees as his wife reclined on his shoulder. He wore a Burberry polo shirt and a straw fedora. He smoked designer cigarettes and had an assistant—clad in prison garb—to make sure his mat was pristine and his plastic cup of Coca-Cola stayed full.

“It’s not so bad, Khmer New Year in here,” Mr. Chanaiwa said. “There is no celebration and no party—there is nothing actually, but it could be worse.”

Mr. Chanaiwa and Mr. Fryett met inside Prey Sar and became fast friends. Coincidentally, they both arrived in March 2013. This year, they spent a modest, sober Khmer New Year together.

“This man has done so much legwork, so much hard work since I met him in here,” Mr. Fryett said. “He is my attorney on the inside.”

The new friends both have a background in business and a deep interest in the law. In fact, it was after learning of Mr. Fryett’s case that Mr. Chanaiwa, who graduated from the University of Southern California Law School in 1998, decided to seek out and befriend his fellow convict.

“I didn’t want to talk to him at first but after I heard what he was fighting against, I approached him and asked to see some documents,” Mr. Chanaiwa said.

Those documents relate to an investigation by the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office into a company run by Mr. Fryett that solicited $36 million from pension funds in the U.K with the promise of generous returns.

The Anti-Corruption Unit has since taken up the case, charging Mr. Fryett under money laundering laws. A number of Banteay Meanchey provincial officials have since been implicated. It was the sheer gravity of Mr. Fryett’s case that drew Mr. Chanaiwa, who says he is the adopted son of a U.S. military general, to his new friend.

“There were some serious triggers for me in the case,” Mr. Chanaiwa said. “Some high-powered people doing things that they are legally not permitted to do.”

“I like to fight against injustice, especially when people abuse their power, so now I am his attorney on the inside,” Mr. Chanaiwa said.

Between sentences, Mr. Fryett and Mr. Chanaiwa paused to acknowledge prisoners whose visiting time had expired and were offering respectful bows and sampeahs as they returned to their cells.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has criticized the behavior of Mr. Chanaiwa a number of times in public speeches. Mr. Chanaiwa raised the prime minister’s ire in 2005 when he took his Hummer for a garden-destroying joyride through Hun Sen Park. Last year, Mr. Hun Sen publicly lambasted him again after he was jailed for attacking journalists at the scene of a traffic accident involving his nephew.

Inside Prey Sar prison, Mr. Chanaiwa says he has used $20,000 of his own money to build a library and recreation area for both prisoners and guards. Outside the library, a large gold-lettered plaque reads: “Donated by H.E. Oknha David Chanaiwa J.D. Esq.”

“Look at the prison guards,” Mr. Chanaiwa said after he was kindly asked if he would return to his cell, a good 15 minutes after all other prisoners and their guests had been herded away.

“They spend almost all their time in here, just like we do, and they have got nothing for themselves or their families,” he said.

But one guard, who manned the steel door that separates the fettered from the free, wasn’t going to let the opportunity for a holiday bonus slip by.

“Don’t forget to tell Bong David [Mr. Chanaiwa] to bring me 12 cans of Angkor beer for Khmer New Year,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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