PHNOM PENH—As talks aimed at clamping down on alleged corruption at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal failed to reach agreement, rights groups warned that a clean and independent judicial system remains a long way off for Cambodia.
More than one-quarter of Cambodian court defendants surveyed reported being tortured or coerced into confession and ordinary people lack faith in the justice system, according to an annual judicial review released last month by a Cambodian anti-corruption organization.
The Center for Social Development (CSD) reported that more than 25 percent of defendants appearing in court claimed to have been tortured or coerced into giving confessions.
The CSD, which receives funding from a number of donors including Germany and the United States, interviewed a wide range of judicial officials, witnesses, lawyers, and defendants between October 2006 and September 2007.
Cambodia's national justice system falls far short of international standards of competence, independence, and impartiality."
Judicial reform of the notoriously corrupt Cambodian system has been earmarked by donors to the aid-dependent country as a key factor in the country's development.
Poor training of the judiciary, bribery, torture, underfunding, a lack of independence, and frequent pre-trial detention of prisoners for terms exceeding the legal limit of six months are among problems cited by rights organizations.
"Not all the news is bad," U.S. ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli said of the report.
But he added: "On balance ... there remains a good deal to be done before the people of the judicial system will earn the trust of the people of Cambodia."
Khmer Rouge trials
Talks between the United Nations and senior Cambodian officials over allegations of political interference and bribery surrounding the long-awaited trials of key former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity meanwhile have failed to reach an accord.
This could jeopardize the future of the trials, which are aimed at bringing to book those who ordered the slaughter of up to 2 million people during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime.
So far, the first Khmer Rouge trial has heard the regime's notorious prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, acknowledge responsibility for overseeing the torture and execution of more than 15,000 people at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh.
Rich and powerful people and high-ranking officials harm the poor as they wish."
The corruption allegations sparked a confidential U.N. probe into claims Cambodian workers had been forced to pay for their jobs.
But court officials have rejected the allegations as"unspecific, unsourced, and unsubstantiated."
The U.S. branch of Amnesty International said in a statement:
"The hearing marks a first historic step towards holding to public account a few out of the thousands of persons responsible for crimes against humanity and other serious crimes under international law committed under Khmer Rouge rule and affecting millions of people, the legacy of which still lives on today."
But it warned that the Extraordinary Chambers set up to convene the trials still had to address challenges if it were to meet international standards of justice and satisfy the needs of victims and their families.
"Cambodia's national justice system falls far short of international standards of competence, independence, and impartiality," Amnesty said.
"This situation has contributed significantly to impunity in Cambodia, where the lack of rule of law perpetuates serious human rights violations in a number of areas, including the rights to adequate housing, freedom of expression, and [freedom of ] assembly."
Vulnerable to corruption
Allegations of trumped-up charges and judicial corruption are commonplace throughout Cambodia, where low pay and barely trained legal staff are vulnerable to coercion or bribery from local officials, or to violence from the military.
Rights workers in the southern Cambodian province of Kampot lashed out recently at the detention of mother-of-three Tan You for several months after she was initially accused of human trafficking by a wealthy local woman to whom she had refused to sell her land.
Tan Hong, older sister of Tan You of Kampong Bay village, said local courts had issued an arrest warrant without calling her sister for questioning in advance, with scant evidence against her.
"Rich and powerful people and high-ranking officials harm the poor as they wish," Tan Hong said.
"They can do whatever they want. The government should punish [the plaintiff] who has unreasonably accused a person and jailed her."
Plaintiff Aing Sophy accused Tan You of persuading her 15-year-old foster daughter to go to Phnom Penh for work, although the girl's employer said she found the job by herself.
Kampot Anti-Human Trafficking bureau director Chin Ov declined to comment on the arrest of Tan You.
His deputy, Uy Vong, who investigated the case, said he found no evidence beside what the girl and her mother said.
"After the investigation was conducted, we summoned [the accused]. When someone is summoned but they do not appear to explain, it is necessary that I have to file a primary report to prosecutor. My side has to wait for an order for further investigation," he said.
Violation of Cambodian law
Two civil rights groups operating in the province, LICADHO and ADHOC, said Tan You's detention violated Cambodian law and her basic human rights, however.
LICADHO investigator Yun Phally said that investigations showed no evidence other than that given by the plaintiff and the information given by the alleged victim’s mother, Aing Sophy.
She added that the alleged victim's story was inconsistent.
"When the [alleged] victim does not speak right to the point, the mother either interrupts or speaks on her behalf," Yun Phally said.
Tan You was arrested Dec. 6, 2008 by Kampot province’s anti-trafficking police acting on the Kampot provincial court’s Warrant No. 282 dated Dec. 2, 2008.
She was charged with and convicted of "purposely guiding a minor," and sentenced to two years in prison. Her eldest daughter was handed a suspended one-year jail term.
Tan You has been in jail for four months, leaving behind three daughters.
The eldest, 17, has now gone into hiding for fear of arrest, and the other two, 7 and 10, are living in a deteriorating hut.
An Rasmey, second daughter of Tan You, said the family had been dependent on the eldest daughter.
After her mother was arrested and put into jail, she and her sister stopped attending school regularly as they sometimes had to do laundry to earn money to buy basic foodstuffs.
Sometimes, she added, neighbors gave them rice to eat in their thatch-walled hut.
"Any day I have money, I go to school," An Rasmey said.
"When I haven’t, I don’t go to school. I request that the government help free my mother from jail. She hasn’t committed any crime," she said.
Officials at the Kampot provincial court, including court president Huon Many, court clerk Mann Moreth, and prosecutor Chum Samban, declined to comment.
Original reporting by Zakariya Tin RFA's Khmer service. Translation by Chhin Oun. Additional translation by Yanny Hin. Khmer service director: Kem Sos. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.