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Law changes feared human rights threat

Law changes feared human rights threat

AMENDMENTS to Cambodia's legal code passed by the Council of Ministers on November

17 will lead to the further abuse of police powers - including the torture of suspects

while in police custody, human rights organizations say.

Draft amendments to UNTAC and State of Cambodia criminal and procedure law will lengthen

current sentences of 10 to 20 years for murder to 15 to 20 years, or life imprisonment

if the murder was committed "brutally" or was premeditated in conjuncture

with a rape, robbery, or kidnapping.

The present sentence for robbery, three to five years, will increase to five to 10

years and the present sentence for rape, five to 10 years, will increase to 10 to

15.

A spokesperson for the human rights organization ADHOC said lengthening maximum sentences

was unlikely to reduce crime rates because few people receive the maximum sentences

for their crimes.

ADHOC says the Government should instead address the poor implementation of existing

laws and rampant judicial corruption, saying that people can easily buy their way

out of legal difficulties.

The draft amendments also contain a provision giving police powers of arrest and

investigation previously denied them. Though the provision is intended to relieve

the burden of the Justice Police, ADHOC said it raised the specter of yet more poorly

trained police being likely to misuse their new-found power to arrest.

The draft amendment most worrying to human rights NGOs extends the period suspects

can be held in police detention from 48 to 72 hours.

Under present law suspects in police detention must be given access to a lawyer within

48 hours. In reality this means suspects go without legal representation during the

period of police interrogation and often face police torture to attain confessions.

Though Cambodian police presently have the right to pursue investigations after custody

of a suspect is transferred to the courts or if issued an order by an investigating

judge, poor cooperation between police and prosecutors means police feel they have

only 48 hours to solve a crime.

Sok Sam Oeun, Executive Director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he strongly

disagrees with the proposal to increase the detention time.

"Police still think that confession is the most important evidence ... This

is why the police want the suspect in their custody longer - so that they can convince

the suspect to confess."

Sam Oeun said the provision runs counter to a worldwide trend to reduce police detention

time due to concerns about police torture.

Limitations on the time that police can hold a suspect and investigate a case stem

from a power struggle between the Ministry of Interior, which controls the police,

and the Justice Ministry, which writes the laws and controls prosecutors and investigating

judges, he said.

"Before 1993 police in Cambodia were political police, party police - they were

strong. The law makers at the Ministry of Justice thought the police had too much

power and wanted to reduce this power."

Kek Galabru, President of the human rights NGO Licadho, believes the Government has

made these amendments in order to protect people, but she too has serious reservations

about extending the period of police detention.

Galabru said that between May and September this year, 33 per cent of prisoners interviewed

by Licadho claimed police used physical or psychological torture to gain confessions

during the detention period.

Galabru also said Cambodia has fewer than 200 defense lawyers -the vast majority

in Phnom Penh - and some prisoners are being tried without any legal representation.

Human Rights Watch representative Sara Colm said some provisions in the draft amendments

might exacerbate already existing problems.

"Extending the period of police detention before suspects are brought to court

increases the time in which detainees can be held incommunicado," she said.

"This is often the time when police beat or torture detainees to extract confessions.

"Rather than extending that time period, the Government should take action to

ensure that rights of detainees are adequately protected," said Colm, adding

that the lack of access detainees have to legal assistance is a key factor in the

belief police have that they can get away with torture.

Pol Lim, the Ministry of Interior's First Deputy General Inspector of the General

Inspection Administration and Police Affairs, and Chairman of the Ministry's Legal

Committee which drafted the law amendments, refused comment about calls from human

rights organizations to shorten the length of police detention.

"Let Licadho and ADHOC express concerns themselves," he said. "They

are Cambodians, but still they do not recognize Cambodian laws. They did not participate

in the meeting on the law amendments."

Lim dismissed allegations of police torture and said police will only be able to

detain a suspect for 72 hours if they have approval from a prosecutor. "We cannot

extend the detention if we have no reason and proof."

It has not been determined when the draft law amendments will be presented to the

National Assembly's Legislative Committee for review and possible approval. After

that the amendments must be passed into law by the National Assembly.

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