The Cambodian judicial system continues to be grossly underfunded, understaffed and not respectful enough of the rights of defendants, the Center for Social Development stated Thursday with the release of its annual court monitoring report.
The report, which covers the period from October 2006 through September 2007, is based on data collected by CSD’s Court Watch Project, which monitors the Supreme Court, Appeal Court, Phnom Penh Municipal Court and the provincial courts of Kandal, Battambang and Kompong Cham.
The report expressed concern over funding levels for the judicial system, noting that the 2007 budget for the courts amounted to just $3.3 million dollars.
“The Cambodian courts are woefully under-funded,” the report states. “The immediate impact of this insufficiency is the lack of court officers,” the report adds.
CSD said that Cambodia’s approximately 14 million people are being served by only 214 judges and prosecutors. This limited number has led to the judiciary’s 601 clerks to take on responsibilities normally reserved for judges, such as interviewing defendants, according to the report.
“The lack of staff results in trial and hearing delays,” CSD wrote.
To that end, the report concluded that in the four provincial or municipal level courts monitored, 21.88 percent of all adults in pretrial detention remained in custody for longer than the six-month pretrial detention limit—however, that figure is only 4.13 percent for the Battambang court.
The report also notes that the rules for pretrial detention were changed as of Aug 10, and therefore its figures are based on the old limit of six months. The new criminal procedure code allows the court to extend pretrial detentions beyond six months.
The report also found that a disproportionate number of juvenile defendants were placed in pretrial detention at the four lower courts. In each of the four, more than half of all juvenile suspects were detained ahead of trial; in the case of the Phnom Penh court, over 80 percent of underage defendants were held.
Absenteeism also plagued the courts during the monitoring period, the report states, with defendants, victims and witnesses often not being present at trial.
According to the report, 35.25 percent of defendants in the six courts monitored were not present at their trials. That number ballooned to 67.43 percent at the Appeal Court.
“Inadequate transportation prevented some defendants from being heard in person and in violation of defendants’ rights,” the report reads.
The report also stated that at the six courts, more than 25 percent of defendants claimed that they had been coerced into incriminating themselves by judicial officials.
“Although duress is prohibited in Cambodia, CSD found a significant number of cases where defendants alleged of being victim of this inhuman practice to extract confession,” the report read.
It added that there was a “worrisome, significant increase in allegations of coercion compared to 2006” at the Phnom Penh and Kandal courts. Between October 2005 and September 2006, 17 percent of defendants at the Phnom Penh court and 11 percent at the Kandal court claimed they been coerced by officials. That number jumped to just more than 28 percent for both courts during the next 12-month monitoring period.
But despite the criticisms, CSD acknowledged improvements, citing in particular the passage of the new criminal procedure code, and solid improvement in witness and victim participation in trials.
At the Phnom Penh court, witnesses testified in 21.6 percent of trials during the monitoring period, up from just 7 percent in the previous year.
Likewise, victim participation increased from 8 to 14 percent. At the Kandal court witnesses testified in 39.3 percent of cases, up from 23 percent.
Speaking at the launch, Keu Khemlin, deputy director general of research and judiciary improvement at the Justice Ministry, who was on hand for the launch, said that reforming the judicial system was a priority for the government, adding that some laws aimed at strengthening the system have already been passed.
“Making laws requires some time that is needed to talk out the details,” he said, adding that the ministry was well aware of the funding crunch the courts face.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said he was too busy to speak to a reporter Thursday.