The prosecutors had a mountain of evidence—a missing woman’s shoe, a broken fishing rod and a bloodstain on the backseat of her husband’s car—but Keng Soma Rith was determined to prove his client’s innocence.
“I’ve been preparing three months for this,” said the 21-year-old student at the Royal University of Law and Economics, minutes before his team came to the defense of a man accused of killing his pregnant wife.
The case may have been contrived, but the courtroom-style drama was real for the 40 law students who participated in what was touted as Cambodia’s first mock trial competition, a two-day event that concluded on Thursday at the university.
The competition, which involved national and international law and gave the participants the chance to question witnesses and present legal cases, saw eight teams tackle the same criminal case before a panel of international and Cambodian legal professionals.
The performances of the participants were evaluated based on their legal skills, said Steven Austermiller, a legal education adviser for the US-based East-West Management Institute, which organized the competition in conjunction with the university and with funding from the US Agency for International Development.
Keng Soma Rith’s defense team ultimately won the competition, which involved students from seven law schools in Phnom Penh, said Austermiller, who estimated that a total of 1,500 law students had attended the competition.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Deputy co-Prosecutor William Smith, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli and Supreme Court Judge Mong Monichariya served on the judging panel for the final round of competition.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said Monday that it was a good idea to bolster the training of young Cambodian lawyers. But she added that the real problems faced by Cambodia’s judiciary concern corruption and a general lack of respect for the law inside the courts.
“Lawyers here are trained. They understand [the law] well…but even if a case is well documented and presented, because of corruption people can buy their freedom,” she said. “It’s not a problem of training.”