In spite of international laws and Cambodia’s own legal code, pre-trial detention is becoming more prevalent among child offenders than adults, according to data compiled by a trial monitoring project.
Imprisoning offenders under the age of 18 should only be an absolute last resort in the most exceptional cases, according to child rights conventions. Yet 87 per cent of the Kingdom’s juveniles are being locked up in pre-trial detention, briefing notes published Sunday by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said.
The notes are compiled from trial monitoring of 2,558 cases from 2009 to 2012. In the most recent monitoring period in 2012, almost 92 per cent of the juvenile offenders were held in pre-trial detention compared to 71 per cent of the adults.
“The fact that pre-trial detention is the norm for the overwhelming majority of juvenile defendants represents a huge blow to the presumption of innocence and right to liberty,” the briefing said.
And while Cambodian law emphasises that alternatives to prison should be considered in sentencing children, only a single one of the monitored cases involved a judge willing to propose an option apart from incarceration.
“In principle, the law considers juveniles differently, but in practice we lack mechanisms and specific legal guidance on how to separate adults and children,” said Touch Chiva, project coordinator at Legal Aid of Cambodia.
Eight of the minors Legal Aid is currently working with are being held under pre-trial detention, according to Chiva. He could only recall a small handful of cases in which an article of the criminal code suggesting minors be educated or put under the surveillance of the court had been applied.
“We just don’t have the facilities or the precedent,” he said.
In absence of a separate juvenile justice system or any juvenile-specific detention facilities, children tried and prosecuted under adult laws are also locked up in the same prisons and, in most cases, the same cells as adults.
“It is absolutely inappropriate to lock up children with adult criminals,” said Ly Vichuta, executive director of Legal Support for Children and Women. “It exposes them to more crime and violence, puts their rehabilitation at risk and threatens their development.”
A draft juvenile justice law has been in the works for over a decade, and Sunday’s briefing note called for its expedient passage. But skeptics aren’t expecting the draft to see light in the National Assembly anytime soon, or for it to make any quick overhauls to the long-entrenched system.
“The government lacks political will for this reform.…But until they [implement it] children are suffering the consequences,” Chiva said.