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NGOs vie with judiciary in resolution of legal disputes

NGOs vie with judiciary in resolution of legal disputes

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090702_04.jpg

Photo by: Heng Chivoan

Dey Krahorm residents wait for a judicial ruling outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court prior to their eviction earlier this year. Many in Cambodia say they have lost faith in the Kindom's court system and prefer seeking the help of non-governmental organisations to resolve legal disputes.

DESPITE years of judicial reforms aimed at establishing a respected court system, many Cambodians still prefer to send their complaints to NGOs rather than place their trust in the judicial system, which many say remains under the control of politicians.

"The courts do not solve problems for us because the people who we want to sue are party members, so I don't want to spend my time suing them anymore," said Saren Ket, 48, who claims local politicians cheated him of his land in Kratie.

"We want to sue a thief, but if they are all thieves, how can they help us?"

Even though donor funding continues to go into improving the judicial system, rights groups have not seen a drop in demand for their services.

Local rights group Licadho says it has already received 918 complaints in 2009, which puts them on pace to inch past the 1,748 lodged last year.

Thon Saray, a coordinator with rights group Adhoc, said that authorities have lost the trust of their communities because too many government figures have given money and powerful positions to their family members while ignoring the plight of others.

"The government doesn't pay attention to people, and they help only their relatives. That's why most people don't trust them anymore," he said.

Another Adhoc coordinator, Thim Narin, said that many are afraid of using the courts to complain about issues that might involve the government.

"Some villagers don't want to complain about the local authorities or the governors in their areas because their complaints could be answered with violence or they could be forced to take what they don't want," he said.

Saren Ket said that by trying to use the courts to deal with an issue in which the government is complicit has put him in physical danger.

"I am really afraid of the authorities' threats to me, but I think that if I am afraid or not afraid, I could still suffer," he said.

After exhausting all other avenues, Saren Ket turned to a local rights NGO for help.

Sao Savon, 64, a retired military officer in Banteay Meanchey, said that despite the promises from local officials, he believed the judiciary was unable to help him.

In his experience, the only groups that have come to his aid without asking for any money are NGOs.

"Organisations not related to the Cambodian government are my angels because they pay attention to me and make me have hope with them," he said.

"They have never used bad words to me or taken money from me."

Suy Mongleang, secretary general of the General Secretariat for Legal and Judicial Reform in the Council of Ministers, said last month that the Cambodian judiciary was not perfect but that it was improving.

"If you ask whether we have got there 100 percent yet, we have not got there," he said. "We are in the middle of the process of getting what everybody wants."

Suy Mongleang said that the judicial framework is not the problem, but that the reforms were imposed so quickly that attitudes have yet to catch up.

"I blame the country for having reformed too quickly," he said.

"It is human beings. You blame people for having Land Cruisers and big cars. You tell me from the heart: Do you want that or not?"

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

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