Fraudulent adoptions in which Cambodian parents were persuaded or tricked by brokers into giving up their children to unwitting Westerners blackened the human rights record of Cambodia in 2001, according to a report issued Tuesday by the US State Department.
The problems eventually led to the suspension of adoptions in Cambodia by the US government, but not before individuals and organizations profited from the trafficked children in cases that drew the attention of international media.
Equally troubling were abuses recorded last year at Cambodian prisons, where inmates died of disease, the report said, also listing problems stemming from political intimidation in the run-up to the commune council elections, rights for women and minorities, mob killings and the failure of the government to investigate suspected abuses by the military or security forces.
The report was published this week on the State Department Web site (www.state.gov).
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Cambodia should be commended for maintaining basic freedoms for its citizens, such as freedoms of worship, speech and assembly.
But a weak judiciary remains susceptible to corruption and bribery, and diminishes the rule of law in Cambodia, he said.
“This paints an overall picture of impunity,” Wiedemann said.
The Cambodian judiciary not only seems to tolerate bribery and corruption during trials, but judges often lack training or even copies of the laws they are ruling on, the report stated.
“When a case was tried, a judge sometimes determined the verdict before the case was heard, often on the basis of a bribe paid by the accuser of the defendant,” the report stated.
The absence of a strong rule of law can be blamed for other problems, including extrajudicial killings such as those in which mobs converge on suspected motorbike thieves. The mobs are often driven by a lack of faith in the justice system, Wiedemann said.
Given the weakness of the rule of law, human rights did not improve in Cambodia last year, he said.
The government’s handling of suspected terrorists in the Cambodian Freedom Fighters trials led to more concerns, especially as suspects were shut off from outside contact while awaiting trial and not allowed to receive visits from their lawyers or families.
Lawyers informed rights investigators that, beginning midway through last year, the Ministry of Interior insisted lawyers needed permission to visit clients in prison, and sometimes denied them what had been a basic right.
Rights for prisoners were weak in general, the report stated. A prisoner was beaten to death in Prey Veng province in July, according to investigators from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The report has not yet been read widely in Phnom Penh, and there was no official government reaction to the report’s findings.
Om Yentieng, the government’s spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In the past he has claimed that foreign reports on human rights abuses in Cambodia have been exaggerated.
The US report contradicts the Cambodian government’s human rights assessment last year on political killings, repeating the UNHCHR finding that 12 activists and candidates were killed last year under suspicious circumstances as the country prepared for the commune council elections.
The government failed to investigate the killings thoroughly, the US report says, accusing a village chief of having advance knowledge of one of the killings but failing to stop it.
Cambodian officials contended in their statement on human rights, released in early December 2001, that all of the killings were investigated and found to be unrelated to politics.
The US report noted continuing problems with child labor and exploitation of children in the country’s thriving sex trade. Though prostitution is outlawed under the Constitution, Cambodia has become a magnet for pedophiles who rely on the weak prosecution of sex crimes.
Some progress was made last year on this front as the government prosecuted six cases in which foreigners were charged with pornography violations or pedophilia.
The report mentioned that although less than one percent of the labor force is unionized, and the union movement remains weak, the Ministry of Interior last July recognized the first-ever public-sector union in Cambodia, the Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association.