Countless rape victims, many of them children, have been failed by widespread flaws in Cambodia’s justice system, which have led to a “disturbingly low” number of convictions, a new study by the rights group Licadho has found.
In its report, Getting Away With It: The Treatment of Rape in Cambodia’s Justice System, Licadho details “serious and systematic flaws” in the investigation and prosecution of rape cases involving women and children.
Issues highlighted include corruption, discriminatory attitudes, misinterpretation of the law and a lack of resources, “which, together, mean that many perpetrators of rape receive only very lenient punishment or go completely unpunished”.
Licadho, which highlighted many of the same issues in a report released more than a decade ago, notes that the “lack of effort to achieve change, and the apparent lack of will, are deeply disturbing”.
The latest report is based on a review of 762 rape and attempted rape cases investigated by the rights group from 2012 to 2014. Of those cases, 225 involved women aged 18 and over, and 537 involved children.
The report focuses on the 424 cases that have been closed. While “around a third of the closed cases ended with a conviction and sentence that was compliant with criminal law, another third ended before trial and the final third ended with a conviction that was in some way flawed, or with an acquittal,” it says.
More than half of the cases that ended before trial were settled when the suspect paid the victim compensation in return for dropping the complaint.
“These payments are often negotiated by police, prosecutors or judges and after the victim drops the complaint, the official involved closes the criminal case,” the report says.
Licadho monitors said they “believed that almost 100 [per cent] of cases settled by compensation involved a corrupt payment to the official involved”.
A small but significant number of cases ended before trial when the victim married the suspect. This happened in 2.5 per cent of the cases involving children, and 3 per cent of those involving women.
“Once a girl is no longer a virgin, in the eyes of much of Cambodian society, her value is gone … For some families, the way to solve the problem of a girl’s unmarriageability is for her to marry the man who raped her,” the report says.
Other cases ended before trial because victims simply couldn’t afford to pursue legal action or they were unable to do so because of the lack of services available to disabled victims.
Many cases that did make it to trial ended with a conviction for “indecent assault” despite initial charges of rape. In cases where a rape conviction was handed down, the sentences were often less than that prescribed by the Criminal Code, or partially or wholly suspended. A common theme in all of the cases discussed was corruption.
“Every time the victim comes into contact with a public official, it’s likely that they will have to make a corrupt payment and if the suspect has money he will probably be able to buy his freedom,” said Licadho director Naly Pilorge.
“Sometimes it seems like the authorities don’t care about justice. Instead, rape cases are just a way for them to make money.”
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin yesterday dismissed Licadho’s findings, arguing that the report “doesn’t have clear or credible data or research”.
“We recognise that there used to be issues in the judicial system, such as complaints related to corruption, but now those few prosecutors and judges have been charged and received penalties. If Licadho was reporting on clear data and precise evidence … the ministry would consider it and take action.”
Licadho, meanwhile, noted that behind the statistics presented are women and children who have experienced a “terrifying and violent attack resulting in psychological and often physical trauma”.
The failure to punish attackers not only conveys the message that rape will not be treated seriously, but “compounds [the victims’] experience of abuse and perpetuates the harm they suffer”.