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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Law defenders ready to work

Law defenders ready to work

KHIEV Thuon, aged 40, never believed she would become an important person needed

by many Cambodians.

She was proven wrong on Feb 3 when, along with 24

other Khmers, she was certified a public defender to represent defendants in

Cambodia's criminal courts.

The group - the first-ever independent,

free-of-charge public defenders to complete extensive training in Cambodia - are

part of moves to make the justice system more independent and

efficient.

"Today is a great honor for me," Thuon said after the

graduation ceremony. "I could hardly believe it would become true and I would be

so important for many people."

Not a lawyer by profession, Thuon said she

had been involved in social activities such as helping women for 17

years.

Thuon was picked to be part of the foreign-funded Cambodian

Defenders Project, which gave nine months training to 25 people from thoughout

the country on State of Cambodia law, UNTAC law and the

constitution.

They began defending clients on a limited basis shortly

before their graduation, and have already scored some successes.

Thuon

said she had so far defended two people - one a government policeman accused of

stealing a United Nations vehicle and the other a woman charged with illegally

detaining a child.

The two had faced between five to 10 years in prison

under the present law, but her efforts saw their jail terms dropped to one year

each.

The project's other successes include securing the freedom of two

pregnant women from Phnom Penh prisons, reported recently by the Post, including

one who had been tortured into giving a confession.

Thuon said that

working in the court system was difficult and painstaking, because both the law

and legal procedures were often "supplementary" to other factors.

The

fate of defendants could depend simply on the mood of prosecutors, and

"diplomatic maneuvers" were often required by the defenders.

"It's like

bargaining over the price of fish," she said. "It's even worse

sometimes."

At the defenders' Feb 3 graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, US

Ambassador Charles Twining said: "The work of the public defenders is really at

the forefront of democracy in Cambodia, because in my view justice is

freedom."

Kem Sokha, chairman of the National Assembly's human rights

commission, told the defenders their jobs would not be easy.

Repeating

the Khmer adage "Don't hit the eggs against the rock", he told the graduates

they had to become like steel, to protect the eggs and be able to break the

rock.

The project, organized by the International Human Rights Law Group,

is mainly funded by the United States Agency of International Development

(USAID).

After initial concern from Minister of Justice Chem Snguon about

the project, the government has now authorized the defenders to practice

Cambodian law.

The 25 defenders will work in Phnom Penh, Battambang,

Kampong Cham and other provinces.

Khiev Thuon said she was looking

forward to her work beginning in earnest.

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