Convicted last week of attempting to smuggle 240 grams of heroin through Phnom Penh International Airport, 34-year-old Taiwanese man Liao Ichun will have 22 years in a Cambodian jail to reflect on his crime.
For Cambodia’s justice system, however, the matter was done and dusted in the blink of an eye.
At Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the defense spoke for all of three minutes. Judges questioned the accused for 15 minutes and deliberated for just five minutes. There were no witnesses called. No pretrial motion to suppress evidence, to strike testimony or to annul acts of the investigation. No presentation of physical evidence and no witness testimony. No sign of any appeal.
Far from a rush to justice, the adjudication of court cases in as little as 15 minutes is not only proper, it can also be a mark of efficiency, members of the judiciary and court officials interviewed Wednesday said.
However, legal aid attorneys say it represents a clear denial of justice to decide cases, often as serious as murder and rape, in less time than it takes municipal police to process a national identity card application.
Chou Vineath, a lawyer and project manager at the Center for Social Development, said Wednesday that the Appeal Court can in a single morning hear as many as 10 cases in rapid succession, often without the accused or lawyers for the defense present.
“For some cases involving 10-year punishments, the time spent was only 10 to 15 minutes,” she said, adding that municipal and provincial courts followed similar high-speed practices.
Only high profile cases drawing public attention can sometimes cause judicial officers to draw a trial out for a whole morning or as long as one day, Chou Vineath said.
“We are worried about the lack of presence during hearings. People lose their right to challenge the prosecutors,” she added. “Ten to 15 minutes, is that an appropriate time to deliver justice for the accused?” she asked.
Ny Chandy, an attorney for Legal Aid of Cambodia, said that the practice is so common in the country’s courts that members of the public simply accept it: “It’s widely known because it’s done in public. But this is not correct.”
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana, also a member of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, a body charged with overseeing the justice system, said Wednesday there is no law fixing a trial’s length.
“Once it is finished, a decision must be made,” the minister said. “If lawyers make arguments all the time, there will be argument all the time. We can’t say that finishing in 10 minutes is wrong.”
Chuon Sunleng, a reserve prosecutor at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and deputy president of the Appeal Court, said that hearings of cases in his backlogged court typically last from 10 to 20 minutes.
“We have just one courtroom,” he said of the country’s Appeal Court. “We hear 20 or more cases a day. In some cases, we make decisions or sometimes delay decisions’ announcement.”
Chuon Sunleng said there was little need for extended legal discussion at the appellate level as the court only has to review the questions of law at issue rather than rehear an entire case. “We just look at the evidence and the disputes,” he said. “All the arguments were already made at the lower courts.”