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Justice overlooks juvenile offenders

Justice overlooks juvenile offenders

While the number of juvenile offenders in Cambodian prisons has soared to almost double the amount it was in 2005, young people’s access to justice has remained almost non-existent, alarming rights groups across the country.

A consortium of ministry representatives, judges, prosecutors, police and prison officials, support workers and NGOs gathered on Friday at a Cambodia Court of Appeal, OHCHR and UNICEF-arranged workshop flagging the urgency needed for an overhaul of children’s rights in Cambodia’s court system.

Ministry of Interior statistics from the Kingdom’s prison department show 772 under 18-year-olds were detained in the country’s prisons in 2010, soaring from 403 just five years earlier.

Yet juvenile rights within the justice system were being fettered by limited legal aid provision, detainment in adult prisons and the denial of rights to legal counsel, causing more children to slip through the cracks, Denise Shepherd-Johnson, ?chief of communication?for UNICEF Cambodia, said.

“Sadly, some children are still being detained as a first response,” Shepherd-Johnson said.

“This is the first time all of these stakeholders have come together collectively … so that shows a will … (but) at the moment everyone works in silos, we need handovers to be more interactive.”

A UNICEF presentation on Friday highlighted the lack of a juvenile detention centre or diversion program, and cited successful examples piloted in Laos and Thailand, where minor crimes are dealt with by community leaders or a warning system. For more serious crimes, the child is referred to a structured diversion program.

Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said a policy overhaul should be a priority.

“Children should not be placed in prisons with adults. There should be a separate detention centre and most importantly they need to have the opportunity to change and be rehabilitated, something they do not have right now,” he said.

Virak added separating children from adult prisons would alleviate the pressures of prison crowding.

“Having children [in adult prisons] merely perpetuates a circle of crime, increasing their risk of getting into trouble with criminal rings,” he said.

Department of Prisons and Ministry of Interior officials could not be reached for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]

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