The Ministry of Justice on Monday unveiled details of its new national campaign to ease congested prisons by clearing an immense backlog of court cases.
Speaking during a press conference, its minister Koeut Rith said the number of cases increased after the government stepped up its efforts to combat natural resource and forest crimes over the past two years.
He said the anti-drug campaign also largely contributed to an increase in prisoners.
“Criminal cases have increased a lot at the municipal and provincial courts. The number of detainees in prisons has also increased a lot, thereby causing overcrowding.
“There’s especially been a spike in cases and detainees during the campaign to combat drugs,” he said.
In six months, he said the ministry hopes to clear 50 to 70 per cent of the nearly 40,000 court cases currently awaiting review.
Of the almost 40,000 cases, 6,260 are drug-related and seen as a high priority for the six-month campaign.
Rith mentioned some of the measures he planned on implementing to streamline the process in the courts.
First, the ministry encourages prosecutors to charge suspects by submitting cases directly to judges for misdemeanour trials. The goal of this measure is to speed up case processing by skipping unnecessary administrative work.
Secondly, the ministry now encourages investigative judges to place criminals convicted of misdemeanour offences under court supervision instead of pre-trial detention, if the nature of the offence allows it.
Lastly, the ministry encourages judges to suspend the sentences of criminals convicted of misdemeanour offences if possible. While their sentences are suspended, the criminals would still be expected to fulfil some obligations.
The anti-drug campaign, which began in 2016 and ended on April 30 this year, was instrumental in the filing of 30,000 drug cases involving 60,000 arrests.
Of the 60,000 detainees, drug users were sent to correctional centres while drug offenders were sent to courts. In total, 1,659kg of drugs were seized.
Rith said the municipal and provincial courts currently have nearly 40,000 cases while the country has detained 12,651 suspects, 6,900 of whom were detained for drug-related offences.
He said the Phnom Penh Municipal Court alone had as many as 12,000 unprocessed cases last year.
Some provincial courts experienced a similar challenge, especially provinces with a high amount of drug-related crimes.
“I have been informed that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has tried to work with care and a high spirit of responsibility. According to data, one judge may process as many as 129 cases a year on average.
The judges work hard, but the cases keep increasing. The capacity of a judge cannot keep up with the rise of cases nowadays in terms of human resources, means and materials,” he said.
Rith also welcomed civil society organisations to collaborate on the campaign.
Rights group Adhoc investigative officer Soeng Sen Karuna applauded the invitation to collaborate and said his organisation is prepared to do so.
“Our civil society side also has some unprocessed cases in the hands of the courts. We will join the Ministry of Justice in cases where Adhoc has legal representation,” he said.
“If there is something irregular, we will write a report or provide information to the ministry for measures on processing the cases, especially for those who engage in illegal practices,” he said.
The ministry also said the campaign must be based on a legal basis and it will not allow opportunists to exploit it.