For underage victims of sexual assault in Cambodia, the trauma of past experiences is often relived throughout the judicial process – in repeat testimonies and sometimes under intense questioning in a courtroom. But the NGO Child Protection Unit (CPU) hopes that a simple tool can reduce the trauma inflicted on minors.
Yaim Chamreun, the executive director of First Step Cambodia, an NGO working with male survivors of sexual abuse, said that child victims in the Kingdom are usually interviewed more than twice during the criminal justice process.
“In our experience, children experienced different reactions including vomiting, fainting and extreme fear [during questioning],” Chamreun said.
In a 2015 Unicef-funded study by women’s and children’s rights NGO Hagar, one 10-year-old Cambodian victim described her feelings giving testimony. “I was so afraid when I was telling my story to the judge that I vomited,” she said.
A rape victim from Siem Reap, then 17 years old, spoke of feeling trapped in a cage as they awaited a judge’s questions. “I was afraid that I would make a mistake, or say the wrong thing,” they said. “My heart was skipping a little!”
Now efforts are afoot to reduce the burden on child victims through the creation of a device that can securely record and replay testimony, though introducing the device will be just the latest step in what has for years proven to be a struggle to minimise the re-traumatisation of children in the Kingdom’s court system.
Encased in scarlet plastic and equipped with a swivel-action camera turret, the machine looks more like a Fisher Price toy for toddlers than a tool of law enforcement.
Despite this, CPU head James McCabe hopes it may one day take on a pivotal role in investigating crimes against children, while minimising the trauma children might face as a result of detailed police questioning.
Nearly a year and a half ago, he approached the Phnom Penh office of a company called Datec with a request for a prototype.
Barry O’Shaughnessy, Datec’s chief technical officer, wrote the machine’s software and used a 3D printer to build some of its parts.
Unlike other widely available devices with recording capabilities, CPU’s machine has a number of features to prevent the loss of evidence or interference with testimony.
According to O’Shaughnessy, to ensure no one can tamper with the testimonies recorded, they can only be accessed via two DVDs or remotely by an administrator with a password.
McCabe said he decided to have the machine produced locally to make it cheaper than foreign models, citing a $4,300 price tag for a similar device sold in America.
Pending discussions with Cambodian authorities, he expects police to begin trying the device by the end of this year and said the CPU is currently in negotiations with a particular jurisdiction, though he would not say which one.
Other countries have already successfully implemented measures to ensure that children under 14 do not have to testify in court. In Israel, for instance, a “forensic interviewer” testifies in place of the child. In England, a videotaped interview is played in court.
Cambodia, however, despite efforts to introduce similar measures of its own over the years, has seen spotty implementation at best.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin maintained that there is already some flexibility in the judicial process, which helps to protect children – though advocates, and even one police official, acknowledged best practices are not always followed.
“The testimony [collection] can be done just once by the police, with the participation by prosecutor and used for the court process . . . no need to show up or confront the accused, no need to testify in the court,” Malin said, though such a process is not required.
Seila Samleang, the executive director of child protection NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), says the lack of formal guidelines leaves children open to the possibility of being forced to testify.
“It is not required for the police to use a recording and that would be up to them to do the recording or not,” he said.
Keo Thea, the director of Phnom Penh’s Anti-Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, underscored this point. “In the past, when we interviewed children, we video recorded the interview,” he said. “But later on, we stopped because there were not enough cameras and we did not use them every time.”
It is also up to the judges to decide if available recordings are used in a trial, Samleang said. This means that victims often have to testify before an investigating judge, trial judge and a prosecutor before and during the trial.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said that while a child needs to undergo these rounds of questioning, their lawyer could request for them to do so from a separate room over a video feed. As for concerns that repeated questioning could subject children to further trauma, he doubted they were being considered. “Most prosecutors do not understand this point,” Sam Oeun said.
McCabe concedes that implementing a system that protects children requires police officers to be trained in conducting detailed interviews with children so that further questioning is not necessary.
To this end, McCabe said, the CPU has organised two courses for police personnel since 2015. “What we are attempting to do, is by introducing a good, quality statement the first time, it should have the effect of minimising the potential re-interviewing of that child,” McCabe said.
“If you’ve got a five-question interview, of course the prosecutor is going to call the child back up,” he continued.
“But if you do a good interview the first time and have a 50- or 100-question interview, or you’ve allowed that child to express themselves for the whole story, then if the prosecutor listens, he might minimise his list of questions down to two or three questions.”