MOST perpetrators of sexual violence never face trial in Cambodian courts, and victims – particularly the poor – are routinely denied access to legal and medical services, according to a report released Monday by international human rights group Amnesty International.
The 60-page report, titled Breaking the silence: Sexual violence in Cambodia, draws from interviews conducted last year with 30 women and girls between the ages of 10 and 40. The attacks they described occurred in 10 provinces between early 2006 and December 2009.
Their accounts paint a picture of a criminal justice system that offers little assistance to women and girls coping with sexual violence and its concomitant effects.
“Dozens of survivors told us that they face extortion, ignorance and disbelief from officials whose job it should be to assist them and protect their rights,” Donna Guest, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement accompanying the report, which was released to mark International Women’s Day, an official government holiday.
“For too many survivors of rape, the pursuit of justice and medical support adds further distress to the initial abuse.”
All victims interviewed by Amnesty described themselves as “poor” or “very poor”, and the report emphasises that, although people from all socioeconomic backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual violence, those living in poverty face higher risks and fewer avenues for recourse.
A “clear majority” of interviewees reported that they had either paid or been asked to pay bribes for police to investigate their claims. Bribes were typically between US$5 and $10, but one family reported paying police around $45.
The mother of one victim said that police, upon learning she could not afford a monetary bribe, suggested she pay with sex.
The parents of a 19-year-old woman with a learning disability who was raped in late 2009 told Amnesty that their daughter still lived in constant fear of the perpetrator, who remained at large because the family had been unable to afford legal help.
“The police only work if you have money, if you can pay,” said her father. “With around 100,000 riels (about US$24), perhaps we could have secured an arrest, but we don’t have that.”
Recent interviews conducted by the Post also pointed to the importance of money in pursuing rape complaints.
Nov Him, a 39-year-old construction worker from Prey Veng province’s Preah Sdech district, said last week that her 11-year-old daughter was raped by a relative in 2008, but that the crime had gone unpunished because she could not afford legal assistance.
She said the provincial court had issued an arrest warrant for the suspect after the attack was reported, but that police had not made any effort to detain him.
“My arrest warrant has been ignored because I am poor and do not have money to give to police to find the perpetrator for us,” she said.
The authors of the Amnesty report also lambasted what they described as the common practice of police and court officials arranging for rape victims to receive illegal out-of-court settlement payments rather than bringing perpetrators to trial.
Speaking at a press conference marking the release of the report on Monday, Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of the rights group Licadho, whose Women’s Rights Office has long investigated the prevalence of rape in Cambodia, said that even when such payments are as little as $100, many victims view them as preferable to public – and potentially shame-inducing – court proceedings.
“And it’s encouraged by the police and by the court because they got also their commission” from out-of-court settlements, Pung Chhiv Kek said.
“When the perpetrator sends their family to see the family of the victim, and proposes some money, the family of the victim withdraws the complaint, and the court drops the charge,” she said. “It is completely illegal, but it is done all the time.”
She said that, in accordance with Cambodian law, prosecutors should bring criminal cases to trial even without the cooperation of the victim.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Bureau, said Monday that the Amnesty report did not accurately represent police policy.
“Rape is a criminal case – even if victims do not report it, we still work to arrest the suspects,” he said. “In the name of the National Police, we instruct local police officials not to mediate between rapists and victims, but to send the case to court for trial.”
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana hung up the phone when contacted by a reporter on Monday, and National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith could not be reached.
However, Chou Bun Heng, a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said officials were working with NGOs and police to increase the number of prosecutions.
“We always remind police to take consideration for rape cases, especially for minors ... We have to send cases to court, and the court has to prosecute,” she said.
She added that the ministry was working with court officials to clarify the definition of rape, a point of confusion that was highlighted both by the Amnesty report and by Pung Chhiv Kek.
“We have many cases of misinterpretation – maybe because the court receives some bribe, we don’t know – but misinterpretation of the law by the court, saying that there is no rape because there is no sign of violence,” Pung Chhiv Kek said. “If there is no consent and no sign of violence, it is still a rape.”
The new penal code, which is set to come into force later this year, states: “All acts of sexual penetration, of any kind whatsoever, or an act of penetrating by an object into the sexual organs of a person of either the same sex or different sexes by violence, coercion, threat or surprise constitutes rape.”
The Amnesty report criticised the code for failing “to incorporate language to demonstrate clearly that rape signifies an absence of truly and freely given agreement to engage in sexual acts”.
“This shortcoming is particularly serious, as it may increase prejudice towards rape victims and could serve judges who only focus on tangible attempts by the victim to resist an attack, rather than the lack of consent,” the report said.
Cases on the rise?
Amnesty noted that, although no comprehensive data has been compiled, reports from police, media and NGOs indicate that the number of rape cases – especially those involving underage victims – is on the rise.
“NGO workers and police as well at rural and the national level were all in agreement that the increasing reports in fact mirror an increase in reality – although that’s something we cannot corroborate or that we can’t really know about,” Brittis Edman, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty, said at Monday’s press conference.
She acknowledged that the government has launched a national data-collection process to compile information about rape cases, but said that out-of-court settlements, which the report indicated could make up half of the total, would not be included in these figures.
The Amnesty report calls on the government to combat sexual violence by adopting more effective prevention and investigation policies; mitigating the stigmatisation of victims by publicly condemning acts of sexual violence, and addressing current failures to provide support to victims.