In November 2000, authorities arrested a 17-year-old and charged him with assault and robbery. Phnom Penh police claimed he used a razor to cut one person in the face, and also stole around $30 from various houses in Dangkao commune, Dangkao district. He has remained behind bars in Correctional Center II prison for women and minors since his arrest.
The suspect, dressed in the standard blue prison jumper, spoke for less than five minutes to reporters before CC II guards whisked him away from the bar-enclosed visitation booth. In that time, he said that he was innocent, but had no lawyer and no money.
His guilt or innocence has yet to be determined in a court of law. He has never had a chance to testify before a judge, even though he has been jailed well past the six month pre-trial detention period mandated by law.
Why authorities have kept him behind bars points to Cambodia’s judicial problems—dilemmas that include a lack of lawyers, poor legal resources and alleged corruption by court officials, according to UN officials and legal experts.
Judicial reform and excessive detention are issues which UN Special Representative Peter Leuprecht has been urging the government to examine and, according to UN officials, is one of the subjects he will discuss with officials during his visit this week.
“[Hun Sen] told me he felt progress in [judicial reform] has been too slow, and there should be an effort to speed up judicial reform,” Leuprecht said at a news conference in Phnom Penh last Nov 28. “It is also an area of concern for the donors, who have not been happy with the progress in this area.”
There are currently 128 pre-trial detainees who have been held in Prey Sar prison past their six-month mandated trial date, according to one former UN judicial mentor, who said there are 441 pretrial detainees in the prison who have been held for less than six months out of a total of 1,347 prisoners.
In CCII, there are 38 prisoners who have been detained without a trial for longer than six months and 123 pre-trial detainees held for less than six months, the judicial mentor said. The prison is currently holding 276 women and minors.
One official at the UN Human Rights office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said about 90 percent of the excessive pretrial detention cases are in Phnom Penh.
The official said the UN has offices in Banteay Meanchey, Prey Veng, Battambang and other provinces, and most of the officials in those provinces report that detainment is not a huge issue.
“One reason Phnom Penh has so many cases of pretrial detention is that this is where most of the crime occurs, especially where most of the drug cases occur,” the official said. “The police and courts need more time to test evidence, which is why the suspects are detained for so long—sometimes past their six-month trial date.”
Bien Adhikari, a UN judicial mentor currently stationed in Prey Veng province, agreed the problem of pretrial detentions is a “Phnom Penh problem,” but said courts in some provinces have held people for up to two years without a trial.
“I worked in Takeo for 10 months, and I saw some cases where people where held for 12 or 13 months without a trial—once for two years,” Adhikari said. He said that since the UN closed their judicial mentor program in Takeo, he has not had much contact with the courts in that province.
He said Prey Veng province has no cases of excessive pre-trial detentions.
In Phnom Penh, prisoners kept for eight or nine months without a trial is not uncommon. One of the most high-profile cases recently of excessive pretrial detention involved the second Cambodian Freedom Fighter’s trial in Phnom Penh Municipal Court last November. The courts held the 26 accused CFF rebels for almost a year without a trial.
The courts eventually found all 26 accused CFF members guilty. Human rights officials and the UN denounced both the court proceedings and the year-long pre-trial imprisonment.
Sometimes the problem is as minor as transporting defendants to the courthouse.
“Legal Aid of Cambodia recently applied for a $15,000 grant to buy a second-hand car specially modified so they can transfer prisoners from the prisons to the courts,” said Legal Aid adviser George Cooper. “Often times, the defendants just can’t get to the courts for their trials, and they are either tried in absentia or not tried at all.”
A lack of lawyers to represent the defendants is one of the main reasons for excessive pretrial detentions, according to some legal experts. At one point the small staff at Legal Aid was handling more than 100 cases, Cooper said.
Another attorney with Legal Aid, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blasted the Cambodian Bar Association for “not allowing” any new lawyers into the bar.
The Cambodian Bar Association admits lawyers who have a law degree plus two years of legal experience, or a law degree with an accompanying “training program” or “internship” with the bar association, according to its president, Ang Eng Thong.
The bar association refuses to admit lawyers who have met the first requirement and they rarely hold the training sessions, contended the Legal Aid lawyer. The end result is that there are fewer than 200 attorneys practicing law throughout the country, according to the Cambodian Defenders Project.
Ang Eng Thong disputed the contention the bar association is not admitting new lawyers. He said there are currently 250 lawyers registered with the bar association, but conceded there are only 180 lawyers practicing. He said many of the bar-approved lawyers work for the government.
He said there are now 30 lawyers in a bar association internship program who will graduate in September.
(Additional Reporting by Ana Nov and Bill Meyers)