The Ministry of Justice on June 29 announced the end of its campaign to resolve the backlog of court cases in municipal and provincial courts after implementing the 13-month programme starting May 18 last year.

According to the ministry’s press release on the results of the campaign, more than 37,900 criminal cases were resolved at the prosecution stage, investigative stage and the trial stage – equivalent to 96 per cent of the total of over 39,500 backlogged criminal cases.

More than 12,600 cases have now been tried, accounting for 97 per cent of the more than 13,000 cases during the trial phase.

According to the ministry, the municipal and provincial courts throughout the country also processed over 62,800 new criminal cases – equivalent to more than 78 per cent of the over 80,400 new cases.

It said the campaign was a success and achieved much of its goals despite the problems posed by Covid-19 during the past year.

According to the ministry, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court have the highest number of cases overall and both are located in lockdown-affected areas, which prevented them from achieving 100 per cent of the campaign’s goals.

“The committee also hopes that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court will continue to try to resolve more cases within their jurisdiction in accordance with the principles of the previous campaign and announce a successful completion of this work in the near future,” said the press release.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho, observed that the ministry’s campaign was accelerated and expected to help ease overcrowding in prisons.

“However, overcrowding could not be reduced, especially amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Some prisons have already experienced an outbreak, which is another concern.

“At this point, civil society organisations [CSOs] working in the field of human rights have urged the courts to consider the release of pre-trial detainees charged with misdemeanours and other offences where possible under the law and permit them bail when possible,” he said.

According to Sam Ath, CSOs have also called for a review process for detainees that will provide some means for the release of convicted prisoners, vulnerable detainees such as the seriously ill, minors, the disabled, pregnant women and woman with children.

He added that charges and pre-trial detention should be a last resort and that the most important thing was to respect the principle of freedom for the accused persons who have yet to be convicted of any crime.

In particular, Sam Ath noted, there has long been controversy among the international community, many of whom argue that pre-trial detention prior to a conviction should not be allowed. He noted that it appeared to be a violation of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by international standards on human rights and the Constitution.

The justice ministry said the campaign’s success enhances the capacity of the judiciary to provide justice to the people.

It said that during the implementation of this campaign, the processing of criminal cases at all stages in the municipal and provincial courts had been done at a volume of more than twice the number of cases as compared to 2018 and 2019.

With the backlog of cases now largely cleared, the ministry said it is hopeful that it can maintain this faster pace for the resolution of cases going forward and avoid creating another court congestion problem in the future.