A girl allegedly detained at the age of 13 on drug charges who has lived in Prey Sar prison for the past eight months has had her trial hearing postponed, following complaints from her lawyers that the detention was illegal.
Though the age of criminal responsibility is 14, Reaksmey* was 10 days shy of her 14th birthday when she was arrested for alleged drug trafficking on December 25, 2015.
Reaksmey was born on January 3, 2002, according to a residence book produced by her lawyers and seen by the Post.
Seng Liv, 57, Reaksmey’s mother, said that despite telling commune police her daughter was 13 at the time, they inexplicably recorded the arrest under her sister’s name and age: Ros Srey Lim, then 20 years old.
Reaksmey’s lawyers have demanded her release and DNA tests to confirm her age, stressing she was used as a drug mule by a powerful person in her home district of Russey Keo. Ouk Vandeth, her lawyer at International Bridge of Justice, said an underage child cannot be detained or tried.
“Under 14, she cannot be detained. We don’t care how old she is now. We care about her age at the point in time when she committed a crime and got detained,” he said. “I cannot say why the police put her at 20 years of age. She is too young to be 20. She still plays with rubber bands.
“If an underage child commits a crime, the state is responsible. If they destroy other people’s property, the parents are responsible.”
Her second lawyer, So Dara, said a previous request for her release had been ignored. He filed a second request on September 1, stressing time was of the essence.
“We are trying to get the court to clarify her age first, before there is a trial on the drug charge. If she is tried for the charge, the judge may just ignore our complaint to release her. Then we would not win the case,” he said.
When asked how police could confuse a 13-year-old child for a 20-year-old adult, Tuol Sangke commune police chief Huy Hean denied any mistake had been made, despite her small stature and young appearance.
He suggested instead that her family had doctored the residence book, insisting that Reaksmey was indeed 20 years old.“Actually, Ros Srey Lim and Reaksmey are just one person. She used to commit many drug crimes,” Hean said.
Reaksmey was first arrested in 2014, when she was 12, alongside her father for similar drug charges, and was sent to a re-education centre for some months, her mother said.
Billy Gorter, executive director at juvenile rehabilitation organisation This Life Cambodia, said if Reaksmey was in fact under the age of criminal responsibility at the time of her arrest, there must have been grave oversight at multiple levels.
“The young girl’s documentation should have been checked upon arrest at the police station, as well as on entry to prison and most certainly by the court,” he said.
“Cambodian children are often held in pre-trial detention, where they wait months to have their cases heard. Once sentenced, there is no pathway for a young person to demonstrate their rehabilitation.
“It has been said for quite some time now that a lack of juvenile facilities, juvenile courts and specialists in juvenile law, means that children are not adequately protected by the justice system.”
UNICEF Cambodia spokeswoman Iman Morooka stressed “detention should be the last option in dealing with a child in conflict with the law, and for the shortest period of time”, according to rights enshrined in the Convention of Child Rights.
“Due to lack of a juvenile justice law until recently, children who are accused of infringing the penal law have often been treated as adults, and mixed with adults while in detention,” she said.
She said she hopes positive change could come with the upcoming implementation of the juvenile justice law in Cambodia, which was signed into law by the King in July.
* Last name has been omitted