In a newsletter released on Wednesday, NGO Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said suspects’ rights to a fair trial have not always been respected by the Court of Appeal.
Specifically, CCHR said rights to defence lawyers and the right to be present at appeal court hearings were not fully respected.
As part of a fair trial project, CCHR monitored 218 cases involving 316 suspects at the Court of Appeal from January to December of last year.
The NGO said one positive point it witnessed was all suspects in criminal cases and juvenile suspects had defence lawyers.
But 80 people, or 25 per cent of suspects in misdemeanour cases did not have defence lawyers.
Citing Article 301 of the Criminal Code, CCHR said the right to a defence lawyer is compulsory for felony charges and juvenile suspects.
“While this means that Cambodian legislation adequately upholds the right to legal representation for juveniles and individuals accused of felonies, it falls short of international human rights standards for cases involving any offence other than a felony [for example, a misdemeanour].
“International human rights law does not make any distinction between offence levels, and instead requires the right to legal representation to be universally applicable, irrelevant of the offence,” it said.
Regarding the absence of suspects at hearings, CCHR said 59 out of 316 suspects, or 18 per cent, were not present during the monitoring period, or they were tried in absentia.
Such a practice was not in line with international human rights standards, it said.
In some cases, the absences were a result of suspects not receiving trial dates or lacking means to transport themselves to court.
“Worryingly, CCHR’s monitoring found six defendants where there was a conflict of interest. Specifically, the lawyer represented multiple defendants in the same case. For instance, defendants provided their answers to other defendants during the hearing,” it said.
CCHR recommended improving transportation services for suspects and delaying hearings when the suspects are not present.
Judges should also postpone hearings if suspects do not have defence lawyers, regardless of the nature of their charges, CCHR said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin said the government’s ability to aid the poor in these situations is limited because it lacks money, human resources, and lawyers.
He said lawyers sometimes represented multiple suspects in the same case because of these deficiencies.
In Cambodia, only suspects in criminal cases and minors are legally required to have a lawyer, he said.
“Even though we are lacking resources, we have been increasing our legal aid annually.
“For example, this year we have 1.6 billion riel [$400,000] to spend on aid, an increase from 1.2 billion riel. Previously, we only had 900 million riel,” he said.
Malin said the number of defence lawyers for poor people also increased to more than 300 this year.
He said he expects the budget for legal aid and lawyers to increase, in line with the government’s ability to assist poor people, women, and ethnic minority groups.