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Two handcuffed men are escorted to a hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court this month
Two handcuffed men are escorted to a hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court this month. Licadho believes pre-trial detainees account for more than 60 per cent of the Cambodian prison population. Pha Lina

Judges prodded on detention

With pre-trial detainees adding to an already-overcrowded prison population, the government yesterday called on the judiciary to rethink the widespread practice of jailing suspects long-term before trial.

In opening remarks at the two-day conference, co-organised by the Ministry of Justice and the Bar Association, with support from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Justice Minister Ang Vong Vanthana called for a “transparent and effective” approach to pre-trial detentions.

“Judges have a very supreme power. [They] have enforced their law, but their enforcement is not comprehensive.… When they leave or graduate from school, they have some gaps in their decision making,” he told the audience of about 70 judiciary members, donors and government officials at the Cambodiana Hotel.

“Judges are [now] required to give proper arguments and justifications for pre-trial detention,” he said, explaining that the days of simply being able to tick boxes when deciding whether to detain a suspect before trial are numbered.

In January, the Ministry of Justice sent a new form – which senior judges helped to pen – to all Cambodian courts, requiring judges to call an adversarial hearing with all parties ahead of any decision.

Yesterday’s event sought to convince judges that, as per law, “In principle, the charged person shall remain at liberty.”

Licadho prison consultant Sharon Critoph said this is far from what is happening at the moment.

“Whilst pre-trial detention should always be the exception not the rule, as things stand, suspects, including pregnant women and juveniles, are rarely spared prison time even for the most minor offences,” she said by email yesterday.

According to Licadho, pre-trial detainees, including those awaiting final verdict or appeal, now represent more than 60 per cent of the entire Cambodian prison population.

“[They] are often held in worse conditions than convicts.

“They are unlikely to be offered work opportunities or vocational training and therefore have less out-of-cell time,” Critoph said.

High numbers of detainees also add to prison overcrowding. According to Justice Ministry figures, in December there were 14,691 inmates filling 8,500 places.

Under the new rules, the judge will only be able to order pre-trial detention for a set period, the maximum of which is one year for suspects over 18 who have committed a felony.

While wide-scale implementation is yet to happen, organisers yesterday stressed the importance of the change.

A speech read on behalf of OHCHR representative Wan-Hea Lee said the reform represents “human rights protection against arbitrary detention”.

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