Nearly half of defendants lack legal representation, 80 per cent are held in pretrial detention, and a sizeable chunk confess before they get a hearing, according to an online public database released yesterday by the Cambodia Center for Human Rights.
The database reveals numerous infringements on fair-trial proceedings. Based on information from proceedings in 2,558 criminal court cases in four courts throughout the country – Banteay Meanchey, Kandal and Ratanakkiri provincial courts, as well as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court – the database provides an unprecedented look at the judicial system writ large.
Of 3,360 suspects, 1,114 confessed before trial, while 1,441 lacked representation.
“One reason is that, in Cambodian law, an investigation can continue without the presence of a lawyer if the accused gives his assent. The problem is that many of the accused do not understand what it means to have the right to a lawyer,” said lawyer and executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project Sok Sam Oeun. “The judge only asks, ‘Can you answer by yourself,’ and many [suspects] do not understand what that implies.”
The database bears out Sam Oeun’s reasoning. In 1,425 out of the 2,258 cases, the judge failed to explain what the right to legal representation means, and in 475 cases failed to inform the accused of the right to a lawyer.
CCHR documentation officer Duch Piseth said that both the cost of representation and the shortage of defence lawyers exacerbates the situation.
The database also shows that in 80 per cent of the trials studied the judges sent suspects to pre-trial detention.
“The courts gave us many reasons for this, but, mainly when the accused doesn’t have a clear address or a job, the court worries they will just run away. And, secondly, in some cases the judges discretionarily detain the accused because of the severity of the crimes,” Piseth said.
But Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for human rights group Licadho, said the high percentage of suspects sent to detention is unnecessary.
“The Cambodian court does not follow criminal procedure. In some cases, misdemeanour cases can be released on bail and, in other cases, the suspect can do community service so they are out of detention. Some sentences should be reduced to half-sentences so that we don’t have to rely on sending people into an overcrowded prison system,” he said.
The numbers in CCHR’s study seemed to come as a surprise to the government.
“Our policy is that judges and prosecutors must follow the existing law,” said Sam Prachea Manith, director of the minister’s cabinet at the Ministry of Justice. “All criminal trials must have representatives or lawyers; if anyone said they observed no representatives, I could not comment.”
CCHR said the database was intended to end such blind-eye mentalities.
“We hope this study can provide more accountability … and more support for legal and judicial reform to ensure fair-trial rights are adhered to in the future by the courts,” Piseth said.