More than one-third of persons charged in the capital last year had no legal representation and more than 40 per cent of that total were on trial for felonies, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights found in its 2011Trial Monitoring Project of Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
As well as the lack of legal representation, excessive pre-trial detention, a failure to post notice of trials and the judges’ use of mobile phones during hearings breached basic fair trial rights of the accused, the rights group said.
“First of all, it is about the commitment of the court itself,” project coordinator Mang Monika said. “It is compulsory under the Criminal Procedure Code that the court must assign every accused a lawyer.”
An "unacceptable practice"
Judges often skirt this issue by assigning one lawyer to a group of accused – an unacceptable practice, Mang Monika said.
The rate of legal representation has not significantly improved since CCHR began monitoring Phnom Penh’s court of first instance in 2009, she said, adding this was especially worrying in felony cases, which carry minimum sentences of five years in prison and maximum terms of life imprisonment.
Judge Seng Neang, at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that CCHR had previously met with court officials about the use of mobile phones during trials, a practice the rights group says jeopardises the quality of trials.
“Such habits have reduced,” Seng Neang said. “We know answering phones affects a hearing and we ask judges to turn their phones on to ‘silent’, but there are still urgent things to handle during hearings,” he said.
“Judges have many files to work on, so they have to answer phones quickly. If they turn their phones off, it also affects their work,” the judge added.
Director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court Chiv Keng said he was too busy to speak to the press yesterday and Justice Ministry Officials could not be contacted for comment.