CAMBODIA'S poor may stand to lose some of the only people they can afford to have
represent them in court - the free defenders working for two foreign aid-funded NGOs.
USAID has frozen funding to one of the groups, the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP).
And both the CDP and Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) have had applications to represent
clients rejected by the Curt of Appeals, they said.
CDP director Sok Sam Oeun said they were concerned but there was little they could
do. "Last week we sent all our lawyers to talk to their clients, and said we
were willing to help them but that we cannot. We told them they could get new counsel
or wait. And many clients cried."
The Cambodian Bar Association says that the NGOs have been operating under a law
that expired in late 1997, and that they and their funds now must come under the
However, LAC legal adviser Phyllis Cox said: "What expired was the right of
non-lawyers to go to court. There is nothing that prohibits lawyers from going to
work." Both groups have fully-qualified lawyers on their staff.
Bar president Say Bory recently left for France and could not be reached. Acting
president Heng Chi declined comment.
Legal aid officials said Appeals Court prosecutor Henro Rakhan sent letters to all
courts noting that the NGOs no longer have a mandate.
Rakhan said that he simply sent a letter to the Appeals Court director "informing
him that these groups have lost their contract as of the first of January".
He said the matter would have to be taken up by a court council and then forwarded
to Court Director Ros Lam for a final decision. He said he could not say how long
that would take.
Rakhan denied he had rejected any papers and said the only one he had seen had been
withdrawn by the CDP itself.
However officials from both groups have refuted this. Cox said two LAC lawyers had
13 requests for appointment as counsel turned down in the last fortnight. "If
they're not being refused, then we'd like to bring those 13 right back."
Cox said the Bar's position "in a large part must be based on a misunderstanding
and a failure to read the words of Article 29 and apply them".
That article establishes a special Bar account fund for legal aid to the poor, and
provides: "This special account may receive donations or aid from private or
international organizations or foreign governments provided for the defense of poor
"It says 'may', not 'must'," Cox said.
The Bar only has about 50 legal-aid cases on its books, sources say.
"The Bar Association is not well known" for doing aid work, said one legal-aid
According to agency statistics, CDP has taken on about 2,000 cases since 1995. LAC
handled nearly 1,000 in 1997 alone, including high-profile cases such as Srun Vong
Vannak, who was convicted of - some human rights groups say framed for - murdering
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother-in-law.
Vannak's case is currently pending at the Appeals Court. LAC officials said it is
not yet clear how his defense might be affected by the recent events.
Meanwhile USAID has suspended funding to the CDP, forcing the group to stop work.
The freeze will continue until their legal status is made clear. Observers suggested
the freeze might be in protest against what amounts to an attempted Bar takeover
of an independent group.
Compounding CDP's woes is an armed attack on four of its staff: a receptionist and
three of its lawyers.
Sok Sam Oeun said that on the night of Feb 5, the four were driving a CDP vehicle
when four people on two motorcycles boxed them in, then drove off again, perhaps
due to the presence of police. Soon after, one of the same motorcycles shot out the
back window. No one was hurt.
Sok Sam Oeun said he did not know any motive for the attack, as none of the passengers
normally used the car and none had any personal disputes with anyone. He said he
was going to remove the CDP logos from his car fleet.
District police chief Yi Sokanitha said police were investigating.