Police in Tbong Khmum province say they have arrested a Memot district farmer who has confessed to raping a 7-year-old girl on Friday.
But according to a new report from rights group Licadho, most rape cases in the country are settled and dropped—often illegally —before ever reaching trial, or lead to flawed sentences when they do, indicating an “immense failure” of the judicial system to tackle sexual violence.
For its report, “Getting Away With It: The treatment of rape in Cambodia’s justice system,” which was released on Sunday, Licadho reviewed the 762 rape and attempted rape cases it investigated from the start of 2012 to the end of 2014, focusing on the 424 that have been closed.
Of the closed cases, the report says, about a third ended in proper convictions. But a third were closed before a trial, often due to settlements arranged by police and court staff who took a cut of the payout in exchange for the unlawful closing of criminal proceedings. As for the last third of cases, many ended in short or suspended sentences or acquittal.
“The report finds that whilst the closed cases were flawed in many different ways, there was a common theme which united them: corruption,” Licadho said in a statement. “In almost every type of case, from those which ended with compensation negotiated at the police station to those that went all the way to trial, corruption was a feature.”
“Corruption is everywhere,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge is quoted as saying. “Every time the victim comes into contact with a public official, it’s likely that they will have to make a corrupt payment and if the suspect has money he will probably be able to buy his freedom. Sometimes it seems like the authorities don’t care about justice. Instead, rape cases are just a way for them to make money.”
In its report, Licadho concedes that concrete proof of bribery, by its very nature, was hard to come by. But it adds that its monitors in the field still found solid evidence of the practice from both victims and court sources, ranging from a payment of as little as $15 to thousands of dollars in exchange for arranging a settlement.
“All monitors said that they believe that almost 100 percent of cases settled by compensation involved a corrupt payment to the official involved, either from the suspect or from the victim by taking a cut of their compensation payment,” the report says.
Authorities brokering the arrangements are also breaking the country’s Code of Criminal Procedure. While there’s nothing illegal about settling a civil claim, Licadho notes, the code says that such settlements should not stop criminal proceedings.
“However, in the cases discussed in this report, the settlement is negotiated on the understanding that the victim will withdraw the criminal complaint as well as the civil complaint, and this is not permitted under Cambodian law,” the report says. Even without a bribe, the code specifically bars police from blocking criminal proceedings when there is a civil settlement, it adds, making them “potentially criminally liable if they do so.”
Besides implying that rape is not a serious crime and sowing public mistrust in the courts, Licadho argues, settling these cases before trial “also undermines the deterrent effect of the law—all Cambodians know that criminal matters can be resolved with money and as a result there is very little disincentive to commit serious crimes like rape.”
The last time Licadho conducted a comprehensive review of the rape cases it handled was in 2004.
In an email, Ms. Pilorge said that compared to its previous report, a greater share of the cases it reviewed for Sunday’s report were deemed to have been prosecuted properly. But because Licadho’s list of cases was not comprehensive, she added, it was hard to label it an improvement.
On the other hand, Ms. Pilorge said, Licadho monitors who have been working on rape cases for many years describe a sort of snowball effect by which the mishandling of one case by police and prosecutors convinces new victims to keep quiet.
“If one person in an area has a bad experience in which they face demands for corrupt payments and the perpetrator ultimately goes free, neighbors are likely to hear about it, word spreads and new victims are deterred,” she said.
Chin Malin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said he had seen the Licadho report but declined to comment on its specific findings because he felt it failed to adequately explain its methodology. He said the courts and police were, in general, following the law and that anyone with proof to the contrary “can report to the competent authorities, and we will take action.”
Mr. Malin conceded that some rape cases probably were settled with the help of bribes and that some criminal cases may have been improperly aborted. But he added that reforms were leading to the arrests of corrupt officials.
“In general we realize there may be some irregularities in the court…. That’s why some court officials have been punished,” he said. “We don’t have clear statistics or data, but we realize that some legal action has been taken and people are being punished for violating the law.”
As for the latest reported rape in Tbong Khmum, Choam Kravien commune police chief Beng Rithy said yesterday that Nim Pov, 19, was arrested Saturday afternoon after being chased by police into a cassava field just outside of his village.
He said Mr. Pov was caught in the act of raping a 7-year-old neighbor by another girl who saw them while driving by on a motorbike and who drove the younger girl home once the suspect ran away.
Chan Dul, head of the Memot district police’s judicial office, said Mr. Pov was charged with aggravated rape on Sunday and placed in provisional detention.
(Additional reporting by Kang Sothear)