The judiciary has signed off on a new set of guidelines designed to regulate the work of prosecutors in many areas, including the rights of minors in the judicial system.
Ouk Savuth, general director of the Court of Appeal, signed off on the guidelines on August 1, and said the topic of incarcerated minors featured heavily in the new rules.
The guidelines propose better implementation of existing laws and call on prosecutors, judges and prison directors to communicate better in order to alleviate case-file backlogs in the justice system.
The guidelines also recommend that judgments be released as soon as possible after verdicts are pronounced, and shared promptly with prosecutors, prison officials and the Court of Appeal. Better communication between court officials to provide child offenders with alternative punishment to an adult jail is also mentioned.
“We want prosecutors in all provinces to understand children’s rights, understand child protection and understand that we consider children’s cases to be important cases,” said Mr. Savuth, speaking at a meeting organized by the government and Unicef to address the issue of children in the justice system.
The age of criminal responsibility in Cambodia is 14, but the country does not have a separate juvenile justice system and young offenders are often incarcerated with adults.
Rana Flowers, Unicef’s representative in Cambodia, said that violence and the prolonged detention of children is never justifiable in prisons.
“We have an obligation to work together to protect children from all forms of violence and to guarantee respect for children’s due process as a matter of priority and urgency,” Ms. Flowers said.
“Only through our collective efforts can we prevent such violations and ensure that children are protected and where necessary, given the appropriate support.”
She said that prosecutors are often the first people a minor comes into contact with upon entering the judicial system. Prosecutors therefore “play a very significant role in ensuring that the child doesn’t return to the justice system or is protected by the justice system.”
According to figures provided by rights group Licadho, in the 18 prisons it monitors, there are 206 convicted minors and 162 minors being held in pretrial detention.
Kuy Bunsorn, general director of the Interior Ministry’s department of prisons, said that around the country, “there are 412 minors of which 19 are girls; 127 are charged persons, 75 are accused, 132 are suspects and 78 have been convicted.”
Ms. Flowers said she hoped to see these numbers fall with the introduction of the new guidelines.
“We believe that the detention of children in conflict with the law will be reduced dramatically after the implementation of these guidelines and that the alternative to detention will be increased,” she said.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said the role of prosecutors is crucial and should be to “protect the public interest.”
“Prosecutors are regarded to be the persons who deliver criminal charges and ask that the court implement these charges against suspects,” he said.
“I ask that the men and women who are prosecutors work harder to improve our knowledge to fulfill their own positions,” Mr. Vong Vathana added.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, said it was important for prosecutors to come away from the meeting with a clear set of written recommendations on how to carry out their work.
However, he said, real reform is needed in the Code of Criminal Procedure, which governs how suspects are treated by the authorities after arrest.
“[T]he criminal procedure code still uses the same procedure for adults. Maybe in the future, we should reform the code,” he said.
“Another possibility is that the government lacks juvenile facilities and a lack of education programs. Minors in prison lose their education. I recommend the government think about that and make sure children in prison can continue their education,” otherwise they are likely to re-offend upon release, he said.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)