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Justice Ministry may try community service after UN envoy points to excessive use of pre-trial detention

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (left) and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana share a laugh as they walk out of a meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh.
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (left) and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana share a laugh as they walk out of a meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Justice Ministry may try community service after UN envoy points to excessive use of pre-trial detention

The Ministry of Justice yesterday said it was considering a pilot project to hand out community service sentences following a meeting in which UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith raised concerns over the excessive use of pre-trial detention by the Kingdom’s courts.

Smith, who is on a 10-day visit to the country, met with Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana yesterday to receive updates on judicial reforms, with ministry spokesman Chin Malin saying she expressed concern at the continued use of pre-trial detentions, especially in light of the ongoing drug crackdown, which has seen thousands of arrests – mostly of small-time users and dealers.

“It causes a crowding crisis in prisons, and also the pre-trial detention includes human rights activists, political activists . . . She wants to somehow make the pre-trial detention decrease.”

Courts have frequently used pre-trial detention to hold those accused of crimes, often claiming that the accused were threats to “social order and security”.

Malin said the rapporteur suggested looking at alternatives to pre-trial detention, such as increasing bail approvals in tandem with court supervision, and exploring community service sentencing.

However, Malin said it was difficult to grant bail or community sentences, maintaining that the public would assume a corrupt act led to the release of the culprit and take matters into their own hands.

“When they go back to the community, the community will think that the court is irregular because of this modern concept,” he said.

But the ministry was looking at starting a pilot project in Battambang province, where community service would be implemented and the community would be educated on such sentencing.

On leaving the meeting, Smith would only say that she had received an update from the minister on judicial reforms, especially with regard to pre-trial detention and alternative sentences.

“I got a briefing [on] a lot of the progress the ministry is making, particularly with pre-trial detention and alternate dispute resolution, as well as alternatives to custodial sentences,” she said outside the ministry.

Duch Piseth, advocacy director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, welcomed the proposed pilot project.

He did agree, however, that it would take some convincing for people to accept a new concept like community service because the “people and public did not have faith in the court system”.

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