The speed at which 11 people – 10 land activists and a monk – were sentenced to one year in prison last week shows just how fast the justice system in Cambodia can work.
It also stands in stark contrast to the large number of cases that involve long periods of pre-trial detention, including ones where the involvement of suspects remains unclear.
At Kandal prison, Sieng Chamrouen, 35, has been making regular visits to her father, Sieng Sarin, one of four security guards arrested along with a villager when a golden urn containing the ashes of the Buddha was stolen from Oudong Mountain in December.
“My dad was on duty that night, but he does not know who stole the relics,” Chamrouen said.
The relics were later found in Takeo and a 24-year-old man, Keo Reaksmey, was charged after police raided his house. By then, though, police had allegedly already found other statues stolen from Oudong in the home of chief security guard Pha Sokhem.
Effectively treated as a single entity, the security guards and villager were charged and ordered into pre-trial detention.
In the time since their arrest, Chamrouen said, her father and the other men arrested at Oudong have not seen the inside of a courtroom.
“[My father] has been in prison for almost a year,” she said. “He’s innocent [and] should be released.”
A gold seller arrested the same day as Reaksmey and charged with receiving stolen goods has had a similarly uncertain time in prison, though at least has gone to trial.
In a court hearing in Kandal on October 28, Siek Sareth, 39, denied knowing that gold she had bought from Reaksmey – melted down from relics looted from Oudong – was stolen.
“The gold was in melted small pieces,” she said. “I did not know they were relics. I have been a gold dealer for more than 20 years and I have never done anything illegal.”
When Sareth arrived in court on November 12 – with a verdict due – she was told that presiding judge Hok Vanthina was busy. She was then sent back to prison without being told when the verdict would come.
Reaksmey has not yet gone on trial. He did, however, appear in court as Sareth’s only witness, she said.
“He told the court that I did not know anything and he wanted to tell the court that I am innocent and he acted alone,” she said.
Officials at the court gave few details about the three cases.
Lim Sokuntha, the investigating judge in the guards’ case, said he had concluded investigations, meaning his decision on whether to pursue convictions or throw the cases out had been forwarded to the prosecutor.
Sam Rethy Veasna, a court deputy prosecutor, said he had seen no such documents from Sokuntha.
According to NGO the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), Cambodia is the 27th worst in the world for percentage of pre-trial or remand prisoners in its overall prison population. With about 60 per cent of its prison population composed of inmates in pre-trial detention, it is worse than Iraq and is the second worst in Southeast Asia, just behind the Philippines.
The ICPS’s definition of pre-trial detention includes time served right up until the end of the criminal trial and final appeal.
Using this same basic definition, local rights group Licadho says that 63 per cent of the adult prison population is in pre-trial detention, based on government figures from September.
“For women, the percentage would be 70 per cent and for juveniles it stands at 83 per cent,” Licadho said.
By law, anyone facing a misdemeanor charge can be held up to six months and anyone charged with a more serious crime can be held for up to 18 months.
However, the law says that pre-trial detention is meant to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Reasons for using it include preventing further crime being committed, ensuring the accused attends court and protecting public order.
“As clearly set out in the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure, in principle, a charged person should remain at liberty,” said Licadho’s prison consultant, Sharon Critoph. “Pre-trial detention should only be ordered as a last resort and only in cases of a felony or a misdemeanor involving a punishment of one year or more [in prison].”
While the theft of national relics would fit that category, long pre-trial periods behind bars often hinder chances of a fair trial, rights groups say.
“It can be argued that where somebody has been held in pre-trial detention, particularly in cases where the statutory time limits have been exceeded, a judge is more likely to hand down a custodial sentence,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights wrote in a 2013 briefing paper on the matter.
Early this year, judges were ordered to begin documenting their reasons for putting someone in pre-trial detention.
“[Licadho] welcomed these moves towards reform, but notes with disappointment that there appears to be no effective monitoring of the extent to which the procedures are properly implemented,” Critoph said.
Continued high rates of pre-trial detention suggested the changes have brought no significant impact yet, she added.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL