The US State Department has issued a scathing report on the human rights situation in Cambodia, citing a lack of judicial independence, “endemic” corruption and torture in prisons, among other issues stymieing the Kingdom.
The report highlights the lack of judicial independence and the inability of courts to always deliver a fair trial as one of the key human rights issues.
“The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government generally did not respect judicial independence in practice,” the report says, adding: “At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined.”
“The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive branch, and there was widespread corruption among judges, prosecutors and court officials,” it continues.
The 2012 Human Rights Reports, released on Friday, assesses rights conditions worldwide, with information gathered from US embassies, NGOs, international organisations, government officials and published reports.
In Cambodia, rights issues became a widening topic of conversation between the two governments last year, US em-bassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said.
With the ASEAN summit, US President Barack Obama’s visit and several widely publicised violations of human rights last year, the US has “put the human rights situation at the forefront of [its] discussions with the Cambodian government”, he said.
Ith Rady, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said yesterday that he had yet to see the report but rejected the allegations.
“I have not seen the report yet, but I don’t know why they said Cambodia is not free and independent . . . Everyone has freedom and justice,” he said.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, however, said the report reflects the reality of the Cambodian justice system.
“The system is abused by rich and powerful interests at the expense of the poor,” he said.
Corruption also continued to undermine human rights in the Kingdom, the report says, citing a “culture of impunity” among senior officials.
“Corruption was considered endemic and extended throughout all segments of society, including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government,” it says.
Cambodia was ranked 157th in corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index that ranked views of public-sector corruption in 174 countries.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said there was no doubt corruption had become deeply entrenched in Cambodian society.
“It’s not a secret anymore . . . it is so widespread and so part of everyday life for Cambodians that it’s normalised. And that is the danger that we have now,” he said.
The report also cites information from unidentified NGOs that at least 97 prisoners were beaten or tortured in the year up to November.
It lists kicking, punching and pistol-whipping as the most common methods of abuse, with “electric shock, suffocation, caning, and whipping with wires” also used, at times to force confessions later used as legal evidence in court.
Jeff Vize, prisons consultant at Licadho, said between five and 10 per cent of prisoners interviewed by the rights group claim torture in police custody.
“This type of torture is almost always designed to elicit a confession. We suspect this number is understated, as many prisoners do not necessarily want to talk openly about their experiences in police custody,” he said, adding that police officers are never held to account for torture.
Domestic violence and rape, meanwhile, remained common in 2012, with hundreds of cases being reported to local NGOs and the government.
“The number of cases likely underreported the scope of the problem, due to ineffective enforcement, inadequate crime statistics reporting, and the fact that women were afraid to make complaints against perpetrators,” the report notes.
Harsh conditions and overcrowding in prisons, sexual exploitation of children, minority rights and workers’ rights also are fingered as rights issues the Kingdom needs to address.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that the government appreciated the feedback but wished there was more assistance from the US and less finger-pointing.
“Our partner, the US government, has voiced its’ concerns. We appreciate it, and it does not hurt out partnership . . . We hope we can solve the problems together instead of putting the blame on us and pointing the finger at us as a punishment,” he said, adding that many of the criticisms were outdated.
“The issues they raise are not up-to-date. What the government has been doing is fighting against corruption and reforming the judiciary. It is easy to pick up people doing wrong, but it takes time to change the mindset.”