Cambodian authorities frequently hold suspects, especially the young, in detention pending trial, even though the law could allow them to be released on bail while awaiting the completion of their judicial proceedings, according to a report released Wednesday.
Minor crime suspects are also provided a “worryingly low” level of legal representation, and judges routinely fail to offer defendants a full explanation of their rights, said the report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which analyzed data collected from 354 trials in the first half of 2012.
The trials involved a total of 719 individuals and were drawn from proceedings at the court of first instance of Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey, and Ratanakiri provinces, it said.
In its sixth annual report, the CCHR said that the cases it monitored highlighted the “continued prevalence of pre-trial detention despite the presumption of bail required under both Cambodian and international law,” adding that such detention was particularly high amongst juvenile cases.
Both Phnom Penh and Ratanakiri Courts saw an increase in the percentage of cases in which pre-trial detention was imposed since the second half of 2011, the previous reporting period, CCHR said.
Project coordinator Duch Piseth said that more than 80 percent of the cases monitored in all three courts involved pre-trial detention.
Trial monitors identified 16 potential cases of “excessive and illegal” pre-trial detention which “exceeded [the] statutory limit,” it said.
Regarding cases involving juveniles, CCHR said that levels of pre-trial detention remained “unacceptably high.”
While there were no cases involving juveniles amongst the trials monitored at Ratanakiri Court, at Phnom Penh Court pre-trial detention was used in 92 percent of cases involving juveniles and in 90 percent of cases at Banteay Meanchey Court, the report said.
“[This] worryingly suggests that juveniles are even more likely to be put in pre-trial detention than adults,” it said.
Representation and rights
The “worryingly low” level of legal representation for suspects of misdemeanors and the failure of judges to afford defendants with a full explanation of their rights were responsible for “further impeding fair trial rights” during the reporting period, CCHR said.
While courts generally complied with their obligation to inform the accused of the nature of the charges against them, CCHR said that not a single judge explained to the defendant his right to remain silent.
“Such failures are of particular concern when levels of legal representation remain low for alleged misdemeanors and when the obligatory 100 percent rate of representation for alleged felonies has not been met,” the report said.
While all defendants accused of felonies at Phnom Penh Court and Ratanakiri Court were legally represented, there were four cases at Banteay Meanchey Court which were not.
Only 33.5 percent of defendants in misdemeanor cases at Phnom Penh Court and 21 percent at Banteay Meanchey Court were represented, though 61 percent were provided with representation in Ratanakiri Court, according to the report.
CCHR also reported three occasions—all at Banteay Meanchey Court—where threats had reportedly been used to induce a confession, and a total of 24 allegations that some form of physical violence had been used.
The findings by CCHR deal another blow to Cambodia’s judicial system, which has constantly been criticized by human rights groups as being under the control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The report also condemned judges for answering calls on their cell phones during trials, adding that 19 percent, 21 percent, and 17 percent of judges had done so during trials at Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey, and Ratanakiri courts, respectively.
CCHR did record improvements in fair trial rights during the reporting period, including what it said were “very few” issues related to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.
It also commended Banteay Meanchey Court for apparently eradicating the practice of making prisoners attend court in full prison attire, though the practice was used in “the majority of cases” in the two other courts.
Additionally, CCHR said, none of the judges presiding over any of the monitored courts made any statements regarding the innocence or guilt of the accused before the verdict was delivered, suggesting that they had no interest in the cases beyond their normal judicial role.
“This adherence to fair trial standards and procedures serves to strengthen respect for the presumption of innocence,” the report said.
“In terms of evidentiary rights, judges are again, on the whole, applying procedures correctly,” it said, despite one reported case at Phnom Penh Court in which a party was prevented from questioning a witness.
CCHR called on the Cambodian government to devise new laws on the use of pre-trial detention, bail, and judicial supervision, as well as a “Juvenile Justice Law” to offer guidance to judges on the use of pre-trial detention and sentencing practices in cases involving juvenile defendants.
It stressed that improvements on fair trial standards were dependent on the cooperation of Cambodia’s government, Ministry of Justice, law enforcement authorities, prison authorities, and NGOs.
CCHR said that in March this year, it had begun to monitor the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal, rather than the courts of first instance, “with a view to assessing how fair trial rights standards are implemented at a higher level.”
“Respect and implementation of fair trial rights cannot be achieved in the absence of genuine political will to do so,” Duch Piseth said in a statement, adding that “all stakeholders … must work together towards this common goal.”
“Fair trial rights are fundamental safeguards against human rights violations and arbitrary detention. They must be the cornerstone of Cambodia’s justice system.”