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Judicial practice under fire

NEARLY 90 percent of defendants in 199 trials monitored by a human rights group were placed in pretrial detention, and in at least 16 percent of hearings there was evidence that the judges’ decisions might have been open to influence from outside parties, according to a report released yesterday.

The report, the first biannual publication from the Trial Monitoring Project at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, argues that pretrial detention is overused, and that judges might not act independently in many cases. It draws from observations of 199 trials at Phnom Penh
Municipal Court and Kandal Provincial Court between August and December of last year.

In 16 percent of those cases, lawyers were observed entering judges’ deliberation rooms immediately after hearings concluded, and immediately prior to the reading out of verdicts.

Mang Monika, a senior trial monitor at CCHR, said yesterday that this type of interaction was illegal.

“Only the judge is allowed to be in the deliberation room,” she said. “This law is to ensure that the judge decides cases independently.”

The report also found that judges answered mobile phones during 28 percent of trials for which this activity was monitored.

Though this practice is not illegal, Mang Monika said, it could undermine the public’s confidence that decisions are being rendered by judges alone.

“It is not prohibited, but if a judge answers the phone during the trial it shows that the judge does not respect the accused, and also shows that the judge might be influenced by another party on the phone,” she said.

Mang Monika said the high frequency of pretrial detention indicated that such orders were being issued reflexively, and without thought to other potential methods for ensuring that defendants appear in court when their hearings are held. “There are other ways of preventing the accused from escaping from trial,” she said, and noted that one alternative is to allow defendants to remain in their homes under judicial supervision.

But Phnom Penh Municipal Court President Chev Keng yesterday defended the use of pretrial detention, saying it was employed in the interest of public safety.

“Robbers, killers and drug traffickers – do we allow them to have freedom to continue their actions if we do not have pretrial detention?” he said.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana could not be reached for comment.

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