After a metal beam fell from a $400 million condominium worksite in Phnom Penh and killed a passerby on Sunday, the subcontractor quickly moved to settle.
The family of the deceased demanded $100,000 in compensation, but on Tuesday night, they accepted a $60,000 buyout in exchange for withdrawing their lawsuit.
Such unofficial settlement deals bypassing the nation’s judiciary – widely perceived as corrupt – are the norm in criminal cases, where negotiations routinely involve bargaining payouts for human life, according to legal experts.
“In most cases, the victim’s compensation is settled outside the courts. The criminals negotiate to avoid legal action,” said Kong Pisey, a senior lawyer for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
The payouts may buy the perpetrator immunity, but the victims are typically no more eager for the case to see trial.
“The most efficient way for settlements to happen is outside the court,” said legal expert Sok Sam Oeun. “If the negotiations result in disagreement and it does go to court, it’s a very long process, as the other side delays and delays [through appeals]. It’s a system that’s very hard for the victims.”
Even after the case is ironed through the justice system for half a decade or longer and the verdict happens to land in the victim’s favour, receiving court-ordered compensation still remains challenging. To get the court-ordered money, the victims have to pay police to enforce the verdict or demand payment from the defendants themselves.
“Sometimes, the money awarded by the court is not even enough to bribe the police to enforce the payment,” said Ou Virak, chairman of the board at CCHR. “Most Cambodian people understand they are not going to get any significant money out of the court system, let alone justice.”
In a 2013 report, the US State Department labelled Cambodia’s corrupt judiciary as the worst human rights problem in the country. Citing the court’s vulnerability to influence and interference, the report said that “at times, the outcome of trials appeared predetermined”.
The wealthy and powerful may be able to purchase the legal outcome they desire, but by avoiding litigation altogether, the accused can limit the number of bribes solicited.
“The more people involved, the greater the cost will be to the perpetrator. By the time the case reaches the court, everyone expects a share of the money,” Virak said.
For the victim or the victim’s family, the only bargaining chip they have to determine compensation outside the courts is the threat of a lawsuit. With little negotiating power, they are often cornered into accepting a diminutive settlement rather than nothing.
“Most cases result in compensation, but it’s always too small, often just covering funeral expenses or a couple hundred dollars more,” said Moeun Tola, labour program director at the Community Legal Education Center. “The life of a person shouldn’t be treated as something so cheap.”
The subcontractor, Cana Sino Construction Corporation, could not be reached.